Culture sculpts neural response to visual stimuli, new research indicates

Researchers in Illinois and Singapore have found that the aging brain reflects cultural differences in the way that it processes visual information. This study appears this month in the journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience. This paper and another published by the same group in 2006 are the first to demonstrate that culture can alter the brains perceptive mechanisms.

The new finding is the result of a collaboration between University of Illiniois psychology professor Denise Park and Michael W. Chee, of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, SingHealth, in Singapore. Park, Chee and their colleagues conducted an array of cognitive tests on study subjects at their facilities in the U.S. and Singapore, and used identical functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanners at both sites. Their analysis, of 37 young and old East Asians, and 38 young and old Westerners, found significant cultural differences in how the older adults brains responded to visual stimuli.

"These are the first studies to show that culture is sculpting the brain," said Park, principal investigator on the study. "The effect is seen not so much in structural changes, but at the level of perception."

Park also will present these findings at the May 2007 meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in Washington, D.C.

Scientists have known for decades that East Asians and Westerners process visual information differently. An analysis published in 1972 noted that East Asians are more likely to pay attention to the context and relationships in a picture than are Westerners, who more often notice physical features or groupings of similar subjects.

More recent research, which analyzed the eye movements of East Asians and Westerners viewing identical images, found that Westerners were more attentive to central, or dominant, objects, while East Asians paid more attention to the background, or scene.

The use of f

Contact: Diana Yates
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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