Cultural Brain Differences


It appears that neuromarketing practitioners face one more challenge in analyzing brain scans. Research at Stony Brook University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University shows that people from East Asian cultures use their brain differently than people raised in the U.S. The study, titled “Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control,” appeared in the January issue of Psychological Science.

Co-investigator Arthur Aron, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Stony Brook University, and colleagues developed the study from established cultural concepts in psychological research. More specifically, American culture values the individual, and therefore emphasizes the independence of objects from their context, compared with East Asian cultures, which emphasize the collective and interdependence of objects based on context.

The subjects performed several tests involving matching lines and shapes, and were found to use different areas of their brain for the same task based on their cultural upbringing.

“Our major finding was that the frontal-parietal brain region known to be engaged during attention-demanding tasks was more activated for East Asians when making judgments ignoring context but was more activated for Americans when making judgments when they had to take context into account,” says Dr. Aron. “The finding illustrates that each group engaged this attention system more strongly during a task more difficult for them because it is not generally supported by their cultural context.”

The researchers point out in their report that the findings show how experience in and identification with a cultural context may shape brain responses associated with the basic process of attentional control. The fMRI result illustrates how cultural differences in the preferred and encouraged judgment style in the task powerfully influences brain function, completely reversing the relation between task and activation across a widespread brain network.

Another important finding was that the degree of this culture-specific brain-activation pattern was greatest for individuals who most strongly identified with their particular culture. [From Stony Brook University Press Release – Does Culture Effect Brain Function? SBU Joint Imaging Study Suggests Cultural Influences Play a Role In Neural Activation]

This is an interesting finding for neuromarketers, who already face the difficulty of controlling for individual differences when interpreting brain scans. I’m not a believer in the “buy button” concept, but if there were such a spot in people’s brains it apparently could be located in a different place depending on each individual’s cultural upbringing. More to the point, when analyzing a complex set of activation patterns neuromarketers will have to account for cultural variations. Today, most fMRI studies for marketing purposes involve very small numbers of subjects. If these cultural variations in brain activity prove to be significant, studies may have to strive for homogenous subject groupings or increase the number of subjects.

  1. Swivelchair says

    Roger, this reminds me of the eye-tracking studies. I wonder if eye-tracking is a proxy for brain-processing.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Some neuromarketing companies do use eye-tracking in combination with other measurements. That makes sense, particularly if the subject is viewing a print advertisement. Correlating emotional response with what the subject was looking at could provide useful information.


  3. Swivelchair says

    Thanks – I can’t find the citation, but there was an eye tracking study that demonstrated East Asians viewed a scene more as a “whole” as compared to those raised in the western industrialized countries.

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