Culture rearranges our brain: Research


Written on Sunday, October 08, 2006 by Gemini

The culture you are born into influences the way your brain works, an Australian conference has heard. Juan Dominguez, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, discussed the effects of ‘enculturation’ on the human brain at a recent anthropology conference in Cairns. The researcher believes different cultures produce different brains and that cultural differences reflect different neurological functioning. “In certain societies and cultures there are certain patterns of behaviour, people may make certain evaluations, have certain opinions, there are certain tasks that are culturally specific,” he says. “We should be able to find the brain would have some sort of bias acquired through exposure to culture.”

Dominguez is piloting a brain scanning study in which he will test how people from different cultures react when they are shown photos of family members. He believes the differing kinship relations will be reflected in different types of brain activity. Douglas Lewis, a senior lecturer at anthropology who is supervising the work, acknowledges this is a controversial area. But Lewis says there is no suggestion that one culture is “smarter” or “better” than another.

Rather, the emerging science of neuroanthropology suggests that brains within a group can be ‘wired’ by common experience, just as individual brains become ‘wired’ by individual experiences. “What we’re looking for are correlates in the brain that anthropologists have in the past thought of as being cultural or culturally mediated,” he says.

The study will test brain function in an Indian Tamil and an Australian. He says while western cultures call both maternal and paternal uncles ‘uncle’, other cultures, including Tamil, call paternal uncles ‘father’ and reserve ‘uncle’ for maternal uncles. “You may have a distant relationship with your father and a closer relationship with your uncle. This could bias the way in which the way brain develops as the parts that modulate emotions may be engaged in certain ways.”

He’ll test this by showing subjects photographs of relations and monitoring their brain activity with magnetic imaging.

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