Differences Between East and West Discovered in People’s Brain Activity

East is East and West is West, and the difference between them is starting to turn up even on brain scanners.

New brain research is adding high-tech evidence to what lower-tech psychology experiments have found for years: Culture can affect not just language and custom, but how people experience the world at stunningly basic levels — what they see when they look at a city street, for example, or even how they perceive a simple line in a square.

Western culture, they have found, conditions people to think of themselves as highly independent entities. And when looking at scenes, Westerners tend to focus on central objects more than on their surroundings.

In contrast, East Asian cultures stress interdependence. When Easterners take in a scene, they tend to focus more on the context as well as the object: the whole block, say, rather than the BMW parked in the foreground.

To use a camera analogy, “the Americans are more zoom and the East Asians are more panoramic,” said Dr. Denise Park of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas in Dallas. “The Easterner probably sees more, and the Westerner probably sees less, but in more detail.”

In January, researchers led by Trey Hedden and John D. Gabrieli ’87 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that such deeply ingrained habits of thought affect the brains of East Asians and Americans even as they perform simple tasks that involve estimating the length of a line.

Hedden’s experiment involved two tasks. In one, subjects eyeballed a line simply to estimate its length — a task that played to American strengths. In another, they estimated the line’s length relative to the size of a square — an easier task for the Asians.

Brain scanners measure levels of neural activity by tracking blood flow. The experiment found that though there was no difference in performance — the tasks were very easy — the level of activity in the subjects’ brains differed, suggesting different levels of effort.

Areas linked to attention lit up more in the Americans’ brains when they worked on the task they tend to find harder, estimating the line’s size relative to the square. In Asians, too, the attention areas lit up more during the harder task — estimating the line’s length without comparing it to the square.

Those findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, echo more than a decade of previous experimental research into East-West differences that are so fundamental that people tend not to be consciously aware of them. University of Michigan professor Richard E. Nisbett even wrote a 2003 book about it, “The Geography of Thought.”

But brain scan data add new heft to such findings, said Hazel Rose Markus, a psychology professor at Stanford University who collaborated on the Gabrieli paper. Brain findings may help people become aware of deep cultural differences that are normally “so much part of the water that we don’t see them,” she said.

Such differences have turned up in experiment after experiment. For example:

In one study, researchers offered people a choice among five pens: four red and one green. Easterners are likelier to choose a red pen, while Westerner more often choose the green.

In an experiment measuring how well 8-year-olds could solve puzzles, American children performed best when solving puzzles they had chosen themselves, while Asian children performed best when solving puzzles they were told their mothers had chosen for them, Markus said. American children brought up in an independence-minded culture felt best when they were exercising free choice, she said; while the Asian children assumed that their mothers had their best interests at heart.

When they are tested on details of an underwater scene they recently viewed, Westerners tend to remember more about the biggest fish, while Easterners remember more about the scene’s background.

“Literally, our data suggest that people see different elements of pictures,” Park said. “If you’re looking at an elephant in the jungle, the Westerner will focus on the elephant and the Easterner is going to be more thinking about the jungle scene that has the elephant in it.”

Researchers use the terms East and West very roughly. West tends to mean American-raised people and others from independence-oriented European countries or Australia. East means East Asians — mainly Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese in research so far — as well as much of the rest of the world.

Researchers point out that the differences detected by psychological experiments and brain scans are not glaring; they are subtle but detectable trends. Also, individuals within cultures vary greatly, and gender differences can arise as well.

The brain research promises to add new precision to the earlier work. In January’s study, Gabrieli said, the scanning not only showed brain differences on the line-and-square task, it allowed researchers to begin to ask how deep those differences go.

Did Easterners actually see differently, at the level of perception, or just think differently? Based on what parts of the brain were activated during the tasks, Gabrieli believes everyone sees the same thing, but may filter it differently.

“Culture is not changing how you see the world, but rather how you think and interpret.”

And that could be good news: “If it changed how you saw the world, it would make the barrier higher for people to agree on what they are seeing and talk with each other,” he said. “If it’s in the thinking stage, even though our work suggests it’s harder work to see things from a different perspective, it’s much more within your reach.”

The older people get, it seems, the more pronounced those cultural differences become, as if the older you are, “the more you’re steeped in your own cultural mode of processing,” Park said. But that does not mean such habits are immutable. Some initial psychological studies suggest that when an Easterner goes West or vice versa, habits of thought and perception quickly begin to change.

So beyond perhaps helping defuse tensions a bit between cross-cultural roommates or spouses, does East-West brain research have real-world applications?

It could have implications for, say, Western mental healthcare workers trying to help Easterners. On a broader scale, researchers say, it might be useful in business schools for students preparing to work in East-West trade, to help clarify culture gaps.

“Understanding cultural differences in the mind is really important as the world globalizes,” Park said. “There can be a lot of breakdowns in communication.”