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sculpts neural response to visual stimuli, new research indicates
Life Sciences Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
professor Denise Park is the principal investigator
on a new study that found the
aging brain reflects cultural differences in the
way that it processes visual information. Contributing
to the study was graduate student Joshua Goh.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
Researchers in Illinois and Singapore have found that the aging brain
reflects cultural differences in the way that it processes visual information.
This study appears this month in the journal Cognitive, Affective &
Behavioral Neuroscience. This paper and another published by the same
group in 2006 are the first to demonstrate that culture can alter the
brain’s perceptive mechanisms.
The new finding is the result of a collaboration between University
of Illinois psychology professor Denise Park and Michael W. Chee, of the Cognitive Neuroscience
Laboratory, SingHealth, in Singapore. Park, Chee and their colleagues
conducted an array of cognitive tests on study subjects at their facilities
in the U.S. and Singapore, and used identical functional Magnetic Resonance
Imaging (fMRI) scanners at both sites. Their analysis, of 37 young and
old East Asians, and 38 young and old Westerners, found significant
cultural differences in how the older adults’ brains responded
to visual stimuli.
“These are the first studies to show that culture is sculpting
the brain,” said Park, principal investigator on the study. “The
effect is seen not so much in structural changes, but at the level of
Park also will present these findings at the May 2007 meeting of the
Association for Psychological Science in Washington, D.C.
Scientists have known for decades that East Asians and Westerners process
visual information differently. An analysis published in 1972 noted
that East Asians are more likely to pay attention to the context and
relationships in a picture than are Westerners, who more often notice
physical features or groupings of similar subjects.
More recent research, which analyzed the eye movements of East Asians
and Westerners viewing identical images, found that Westerners were
more attentive to central, or dominant, objects, while East Asians paid
more attention to the background, or scene.
The use of fMRI technology allowed the researchers to determine which
brain regions were activated when study subjects contemplated various
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most striking finding was that the object areas
of the older East Asian subjects responded much
more weakly to novel stimuli (that is, the appearance
of new objects in the pictures) than did those
same brain regions in the older Americans.
A 2006 analysis published by Park, Illinois postdoctoral fellow Angela
Gutchess and colleagues at the University of Michigan reported differing
neural activation patterns in the brains of East Asians and Americans
shown identical pictures. The Americans showed more activity in brain
regions associated with object processing than the East Asians, whose
brains showed more activity in areas involved in processing background
The most recent study takes this work further, comparing neural responses
to visual stimuli in young and old adults in both cultures. In this
analysis, the researchers found equivalence between all four groups
(young and old East Asians; young and old Americans) in terms of how
they processed background information in the parahippocampal gyrus,
a brain region vital to memory encoding and retrieval. As expected,
older adults in both cultures exhibited diminished binding processes
(the ability to connect a particular object to its background) in the
hippocampus, as compared with younger study subjects. The older subjects
also exhibited diminished object processing in the lateral occipital
The most striking finding was that the object areas of the older East
Asian subjects responded much more weakly to novel stimuli (that is,
the appearance of new objects in the pictures) than did those same brain
regions in the older Americans. For the older East Asians, a lifetime
of enhanced attention to the backgrounds, or context, of pictures eventually
showed up as a diminished response in the part of the brain that keeps
track of foreground objects.
“These findings demonstrate the malleability of perceptual processes
as a result of differences in cultural exposure over time,” the
Editor’s note: To reach Denise Park, call 217-244-6348; e-mail: email@example.com.