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ILLINOIS STYLE: Cultural differences may affect brain’s wiring


On Denise Park’s office wall is a lovely Asian painting, kind of a market scene in what looks to be a village square.

The piece is colorful and filled with interesting aspects. What it lacks is a central object or subject that grabs the attention right off, a feature common in Western art, from still life bowls of fruit to the farm couple in “American Gothic.”

Park, a University of Illinois psychology professor, points to the painting as an example in discussing something scientists have known for a decade about differences in the way Asians and Westerners process visual information.

In Asian societies, where fitting in is generally valued, the focus is likely to be on the relationships in a scene, its context. Meanwhile, Westerners, traditionally more individualistic, tend to focus on central or dominant objects.

Last year, Park, UI postdoctoral researcher Angela Gutchess and University of Michigan researchers published a study showing that Americans and Asians viewing the same picture had different patterns of brain activity. The Americans exhibited more activity in parts of the brain associated with object processing, the Asians more in parts associated with processing the background of scenes.

Now, Park and colleagues at the UI and in Singapore have shown that these cultural tendencies may actually affect the brain’s way of functioning over time, particularly the region in the back of the brain where we do visual processing.

The “object area” there is known to diminish or deteriorate as we age. But the UI study, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging to capture the brain in action, found that in older Chinese Singaporeans it’s more or less turned off entirely by default.

Park, UI graduate student Joshua Goh, the study’s lead author, and collaborator Michael Chee in Singapore believe the brains of older Asians are essentially wired that way from long cultural experience.

Younger Americans and Asians tested as part of the study showed little difference in brain activity in the area that was imaged, Park and Goh said. The object area in the younger Asians was less active than in the younger Americans, but only to a degree that Park characterized as not significant.

Younger Asians did focus more on the background of images in a study tracking eye movements, which the researchers did as a follow-up to the MRI study.

In the MRI study, older Americans, as expected from previous studies, showed diminished activity in the brain’s object area compared with the younger subjects; older Asians for all intents and purposes showed no activity in the object area, said the UI researchers, who present the results this month in the journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience.

Not that the ability to focus on objects isn’t there in the older Asians. When the researchers presented them with images of objects isolated from any background, the object-related area of the brain was activated. But it wasn’t active in the absence of the specific stimulus.

“The default is to treat everything as background,” said Park, also a professor at the UI’s Beckman Institute.

– Associated Press

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