I had the pleasure of finally attending one of NU's Science Café events a few nights ago, and I'm so glad I did. It was on cultural neuroscience, hosted by Dr. Joan Chiao of Northwestern’s Department of Psychology. In about an hour and a half, Chiao summarized the myriad of evidence now surfacing on the complex interactions between culture and neuroscience. Here are some key points for those of you who missed the event.
First, she pointed out a misconception that I myself am guilty of assuming true- that biology and neurobiology, for the most part, are fixed. Recent studies suggest that the brain is capable of remarkable adaptation and plasticity within relatively short periods of time. Her illustrative example: cabbies in London. These brave souls develop incredible spatial memory over the course of the years they spend driving in the London labyrinth, and research suggests that the volume of the hippocampus responsible for this spatial memory is directly correlated to the number of years spent driving!
The implications of this research are profound; it is very possible that perhaps every cultural activity in which we engage somehow alters our unique neural circuitry. Since the fickle weather here in Chicago lightened up a bit today (finally!), I jogged to the event at the Firehouse Grill. In those brief 30 minutes, it is entirely possible that action of running altered the physiology of my brain. It is also entirely possible that the action of attending the lecture altered the biology of my brain in a subtle way.
Second, Chiao drew attention to the distinctions between collectivist and individualist cultures, and the possible biological causes of these differences. "Collectivist cultures" refers to cultures that give priority to the goals of a group and define the individual in terms of a group. Individualist countries, on the other hand, give priority to the goals of the individual and define the individual in terms of personal attributes. We know that many Eastern nations, such as India, Bangladesh, and China, exhibit more collectivist cultures, while many Western nations, including European nations and the U.S., exhibit individualist cultures. South American nations and other tropical areas tend to exhibit collectivist cultures as well. What could explain this bizarre phenomenon?
Researchers today hypothesize that the answer could lie in epidemiology. Collectivist cultures seem to emerge in nations with high susceptibility to infectious tropical diseases, because one of the evolutionary advantages of collectivist cultures is that they have the ability to shun individuals in the interest of the entire group. Therefore, if an individual in one of these societies happened to contract an infectious disease, the group could easily quarantine that individual and focus on the protection of the overall group. Maybe because Western nations did not face this issue, these societies never developed collectivist cultures.
Finally, she revealed another shocking study on the prevalence of depression and similar mood disorders in various parts of the world. Researchers today understand that certain individuals are more prone to mood disorders due to the presence of a characteristically short allele (one of several possible forms of a gene) in their genetic makeup. Incidentally, the presence of this allele is more common in Eastern nations such as India and China. But remarkably, it is these very countries where the occurrence of mood disorders is the lowest, while Western nations display the highest proportion of individuals with mood disorders.
I immediately wondered if this was just a result of misdiagnosis or a stigma against mental disease in these nations, but Chiao pointed out that this phenomenon arises specifically for mood disorders, as opposed to other similarly stigmatizing issues such as drug addiction. So it appears as though there might be a link between collectivist cultures and the low occurrence of these mood disorders, and the effects are so dramatic that they even nullify biological, genetic predispositions.
This is groundbreaking work, especially in the realm of potential treatment of mental disorders. Why? Because, while we may not be able to manipulate genes, we can certainly alter culture. For me especially, the research is very personal. I grew up as first-generation Indian-American, experiencing both the personalized, capitalistic, “dream-big” West and the traditional, reverent, family-centered East. I can appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of both individualist and collectivist cultures. But I also realize that after a particularly rough exam or long day, there’s nothing more comforting than the sound of my parents’ voices on the phone. And since one side of my family has a long history of mood disorders, it’s a really no-brainer for me. I’ll always switch to collectivist mode when the going gets tough. And maybe we could all use a lesson from our neighbors to the East – through the good times and the bad, we’re never alone.