Cultural Training: Lessons from Brain Sciences

A book chapter I had the privilege of co-authoring with Professor Han Shihui. Prof Han is a leading figure in the field of cultural neuroscience. He directs the Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab in Peking University. Our chapter was published in the 4th edition of the Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Training.

The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Training


Economic globalization brings increasing demands and opportunities for intercultural training and education that produce novel consequences on people’s mind, behavior, and life quality. Why and how do intercultural training and education change mind and behavior? This chapter aims to address these issues from a cultural neuroscience perspective. By reviewing recent brain imaging findings of East Asian/Western cultural differences in neural underpinnings of cognition and emotion, we discuss the neural basis for understanding intercultural training and education by examining changes of functional brain activity underlying cognitive and affective processes. We propose a theoretical analysis of intercultural training and education based on the culture-behavior-brain loop model of human development. Future issues related to intercultural training and education are discussed.


Some thoughts:

Due to copyright issues, I cannot post the chapter here. However, the main thrust of our argument was rather straightforward:

Cultural neuroscience has demonstrated that culture can affect even very basic brain processes. For example, you can guess whether someone is a Westerner or East Asian just by analyzing their brain responses to simple visual stimuli. This relates to well-known cognitive differences between the (average) Westerner and East Asian: Europeans and Americans perceive visual stimuli more analytically, piece by piece, whereas the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans tend to pay more attention to the holistic features of the image. A neat example:

Global precedence - Wikipedia

Picture from Wikipedia

After perceiving the target stimulus, East Asians are more prepared to perceive the global match (same holistic T shape). Westerners are relatively more prepared for the local match (same X-components).

So much for the cultural differences.

We also know that the brain can learn new cultural styles. (No, these are not evidence of biological differences between ethnicities!) For example, East Asians living in Western areas can be primed to respond to stimuli in a more “East Asian” or “Western”. The idea would be, in its simplicity, that if you flash the Great Wall to a Chinese-American, they are more likely to perceive in a holistic fashion. If you flash a picture of Capitol hill, the opposite happens. These are cool studies which demonstrate how cultural influences can be subtle yet deep.

This suggests a simple two-stage model for intercultural training. (This is my own version, which is somewhat different from the book chapter)

First, training should raise awareness of the depth of possible cultural differences. Culture is not just rituals and food preferences. Examples from cultural neuroscience drill this point even to the hard-nosed sceptic.

Second, training should explore ways to train the brain to adopt a new cultural style. A potential example of this would be to train Western subjects to perceive visual stimuli in a more holistic fashion. (This does not mean erasing the old style. As evidence from multicultural individuals shows, the the brain is capable of using two different styles as appropriate.)

That’s the bulk of the argument. I am hoping to write more about the topic in subsequent posts.

Notes and links

Professor Han has a great book on this called The Sociocultural Brain.

Much of this work gos back to cultural psychology by Richard Nisbett, Hazel Rose Markus, and Shinobu Kitayama. Nisbett’s book The Geography of Thought is a classic. A pioneering 1991 article by Markus and Kitayama is available here.

A very basic 12-minute video summary:

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