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Studies of culture, the brain hint at future shape of the mind

By Xia Ruixue, Su Wanru | 2016-07-12
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

This picture shows the culture-behavior-brain loop model.


To a large extent, culture shapes human thought and behavior, and this relationship has given rise to a number of specializations and sub-disciplines, such as cultural psychology and cultural neurosciences.


Cultural background
Early cross-cultural studies focused on differences between the East and the West. The East-West relationship defined cultural boundaries of the research, thus serving as the basis of evaluations on individual psychology and behavior. According to the theory of self-construal put forth by Stanford psychologist Hazel Rose Markus, Westerners, represented by Americans, were thought to have an independent self-construal characterized by separateness from others, attention to one’s abilities, traits, preferences and wishes, and by the primacy of one’s individual goals over those of in-groups. East Asians, represented by the Chinese, were thought to have an interdependent self-construal characterized by a sense of fundamental connectedness with others, attention to one’s role in in-groups, and the primacy of group goals over individual goals.

Self-construal is a relatively static opinion that analyzes individual psychology and behavior under a cultural framework. Admittedly, it fails to explain the interrelationship between culture and behavior, but the theory advocates an unprecedented opinion that culture influences psychology and behavior.

In contemporary society, a growing number of people come from two or more cultural backgrounds. In terms of behavioral characteristics, cultural dynamic construction theory argues culture is highly dynamic and individuals can hold different or even conflicting cultural significances. As a result, their psychology and behavior can be reconfigured at any time rather than only under stable conditions.

In ordinary circumstances, the cognitive performance of people who have a high degree of cultural identification is in accordance with their cultural backgrounds, constituting cultural assimilation. In contrast, the cognitive performance of people who have a low degree of cultural identification is opposite. For example, Asian-Americans with a high degree of cultural identification barely consider outside factors affecting their employees when evaluating work performance in the context of American culture. But they will pay more attention to outside factors when evaluating against the background of Asian culture. In comparison, individuals who a have low degree of cultural identification behave in the opposite way.

Cultural dynamic construction pays attention to the dynamic and immediate functions of culture while taking cultural assimilation into account, thus explaining psychology and behavior of individuals who have different cultural backgrounds. But the theory does not touch upon how behavior can contradict culture.


With the emergence of cultural neuroscience, there is a growing body of evidence showing that culture shapes not only behavior but the brain itself. In the culture-behavior-brain loop model, culture and the brain interact with each other directly and indirectly.

In the direct interaction, culture and the brain affect each other because different cultural values lead to variations in brain functions. Correspondingly, the brain, under the influence of culture, implements specific social rules and adapts to a concrete social environment. In the indirect interaction, culture and brain interaction behavior serves as the medium. Four links are involved here.

Culture contextualizes human behavior. In the specific cultural background, a dominant shared faith and behavioral scenario leads to culturally contextualized individual behavior. For example, in a society dominated by individualism, parents pay special attention to independence, so they let their kids live in a separate room right after birth. In a collectivist society, infant children usually stay in the same room with parents. The cultural beliefs people share translate into culturally contextualized individual behavior, which may disappear in the absence of a specific cultural environment.

At the same time, culturally contextualized behavior reshapes the brain, the functional and contractual tissue of which can be reorganized and changed after being exposed to any form of social value or contextualized behavior. In this way, brain areas related to certain behavioral practices will develop.

In addition, the brain can lead to spontaneous cultural behavior. To deal with the social and cultural environment, the brain, under the influence of culture, prompts automatic reactions in individuals in accordance with social rules, which is termed spontaneous cultural behavior. In the context of collectivism, when individuals reflect on themselves, the temporoparietal junction will greatly enlarge, while the caudate nucleus and medial prefrontal cortex will greatly expand when reacting to subjunctive social cues. These neurological activities make individuals more likely to adopt opinions of others, operate with others and behave by norms that social relationships reinforce. By contrast, people’s medial prefrontal cortex becomes enormously active when reflecting on themselves in an individualistic society. The caudate nucleus expands in response to dominant social cues. In this way, individuals can strive to achieve goals and behave according to norms stressed by social grades, but spontaneous cultural behavior can be produced independently in a specific cultural context.

At last, spontaneous cultural behavior will adapt to or change culture. Spontaneous behavior makes it easier to adapt to a particular culture, and can also change the existing culture. For example, the widespread use of the Internet nowadays has brought revolutionary changes in social interaction, such as online friends and anonymous communication. Smartphones and portable devices allow people to be constantly online and also foster potential alternatives to nine-to-five work. At the same time, the boundary between work and life is becoming increasingly blurred. All these changes have brought new social cultural values, and have altered traditional culture.


Human development
The culture-behavior-brain loop model is a new perspective to explain personal development. The first part of the model contains a self-construal theory and a theory of cultural dynamic constructionism in which culture influences behavior. The model also notes that contextualization is the internal mechanism by which culture influences behavior. Its essence is connecting the subject, i.e. the person, and object, i.e. the environment, and bonding the physiological brain and the psychological mind, thus systematically and structurally revealing human development as well as deepening the understanding about the dynamic relationships connecting culture, behavior and the brain.

Based on the culture-behavior-brain loop model, people can predict the future trend of the human brain. For example, the Internet allows students to access databases, so they only need to remember how to obtain these documents instead of memorizing the details. Thus, neural structures, such as the primary prefrontal cortex, primary parietal cortex and temporal lobe cortex that are used for storage and semantic memory are likely to have other functions in future generations.

The frequency of face-to-face exchanges among people is decreasing, so there is a possibility that people will develop distinctive neural processes for recognizing the emotions of others in online interactions. The culture-behavior-brain loop model offers a new perspective to interpret human development by thoroughly illustrating every connecting point among these three elements. As a result, the model is an outcome of the evolving cultural dimension and construction theory.

Xia Ruixue and Su Wanru are from the School of Psychology at Northwest Normal University.