Cultural neuroscience: A new approach to a cohesive understanding of self
Mel McKendrick asks, “Are we as individual as we think?”
Evidence that perceptions of individuality are rooted in the relationship between biology and culture is emerging from the fledgling field of cultural neuroscience. This uses brain imaging techniques to map cognition and behaviour to neural function.
A recent study by Chiao and Blizinsky 1 has found a genetic basis for cultural differences in relation to the serotonin transporter gene associated with depression and anxiety. A lower level of depression and anxiety was associated with collectivist values in those with a higher level of the S allele of the 5-HTTLPR gene. This suggests that the Western focus on individuality is less healthy than a more holistic view of self – a view associated with Confucius societies which emphasis collective identity. Previous studies by Zhu et al. 2 and Chiao et al 3 have found that neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (associated with self-referential information) and the posterior cingulate cortex (implicated in the development of depression) differed as a function of culture when making self-evaluations.
Another recent study by Wu et al found differences in neural activity between Chinese non-religious ‘Han’ and Tibetan Buddhist ethnic groups when considering their own personality traits versus those of others. The more individualistic Han showed increased activity in areas associated with social and emotional processing when considering self-representations compared to the more collectivist Tibetans. This may be due in part to different cognitive processing styles between cultures. Dr Denise Park (University of Texas) found that Westerner’s visual systems were more specialised for perceiving faces whilst their more collectivist Eastern counterparts focus more on background context, supporting a more holistic processing style. Differences in conceptions of ‘self’ between Westerners and Eastern Asians may be partly fuelled by environmental influences with cultural differences marked by individual pursuits of capitalism versus tradition and community. However the emerging evidence from cultural neuroscience suggests that cultural influences and neural processes may be bidirectional in the way that they affect our understanding of the world and our position in it. Such cultural differences in the concept of the self may have implications for our moral understanding of modern moral scientific issues such as cloning.
As John Tierney described in a New York Times article in 2007, Eastern societies are less concerned with controversial Western ethical debates about human cloning since it is in line with the Buddhist concept of recycling life. In contrast, singularity of consciousness and soul is central to Christianity. A 2008 report commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported several reasons to account for reluctance in the USA and Europe for the concept of cloning animals including concerns about interfering with nature, animal welfare, quality and pricing of food. Whilst the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) recently stated[lref id=6] that there is no evidence to suggest that produce from cloned animals is unsafe, the FSA report also highlighted the fear that such technology may ultimately lead to human cloning. This was viewed with trepidation by some survey respondents, who feared a ‘Frankenstein’ culture which they felt may threaten the fabric of humanity. Concerns included the abandonment of natural procreation methods and the use of cloning for unethical purposes. However as Alan Peterson from Nottingham Trent University reported in 2002 following the cloning of Dolly the sheep, what people also feared was the loss of their sense of uniqueness.
Yet, the Western focus on individualistic self-identity has recently been challenged by the case of four year old Canadian conjoined twins, Tatiana and Krista Hogan, who share a thalamus and apparently also share aspects of consciousness. Should we conceive of the twins as having separate identities but a collective consciousness or as one being? Since they seem to function independently as well as interdependently it would suggest the former interpretation. However, this is at odds with the Western conception of singular self-identity. If our idea of personal identity is based on properties such as personal memories, characteristics and thoughts, then how do we define the beginning and end of two beings who to some extent share these experiences? The scientific and moral questions emerging from modern technological advances require a fresh approach to individuality and consciousness. Cultural neuroscience offers a promising tool to investigate cultural influences on moral scientific questions and how we might be able to facilitate more flexible processing styles to offer a more cohesive response to global issues.
- Chiao, J.Y. & Blizinsky, K.D., Culture-gene coevolution of individualism– collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene. 2010
- Zhu, Y., Zhang, L., Fan, J., Han, S. Neural basis of cultural influence on self representation. Neuroimage. 2007.
- Chiao et al. Neural basis of individualistic and collectivistic views of self. Human Brain Mapping. 2011.