Washington, Jan 12: Resrchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have found that people from different cultures apply their brains differently when they are asked to solve the same perceptual task.
The study led by John Gabrieli, a professor at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has established that American culture, which values the individual, emphasizes the independence of objects from their contexts, while East Asian societies emphasize the collective and the contextual interdependence of objects.
The team monitored 10 East Asians who had recently arrived in the United States and 10 Americans who were asked to make quick perceptual judgments while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, a imaging technique that records blood flow changes in the brain corresponding to mental operations.
In the study, the subjects were shown a string of stimuli consisting lines within squares and were asked to compare each stimulus with the previous one.
In a few trials, they were asked whether the lines were the same length regardless of the surrounding squares (an absolute judgment of individual objects independent of context).
In other trials, they judged whether the lines were in the same proportion to the squares, regardless of absolute size (a relative judgment of interdependent objects).
The findings revealed that the Americans, when making relative judgments, stimulated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks and showed much less stimulation while making more culturally familiar absolute judgments
However, East Asians engaged the brain's attention system more while making absolute judgments than the relative.
"Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it's the culture that does the training," said Gabrieli
"It's fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships," she added.
The research also showed that the effect was bigger in individuals who were more into their culture.
"We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain's attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone," said Trey Hedden, lead author of the paper and a research scientist at McGovern.
The study has been published in January issue of Psychological Science.