Neuroscience and Culture in the Mind

Neuroscience and Culture in the Mind

By: Christine Winskowski

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What does neuroscience add to our understanding of culture and cross-cultural encounters? I was thinking about this as I listened to Sheena Iyengar’s vignette in the lead-in video illustrating an East-West cultural difference: A Western restaurant customer in Japan (Iyengar herself) wants her green tea served with sugar. The staff does not want to serve green tea adulterated with sugar; it isn’t done. A classic culture clash.

Approaches to the study of cultural difference

The study of cultural difference has divided into two approaches. The first is focused on social, ethnic, and institutional levels, and addresses group values, beliefs, customs, norms, reasoning, and other shared patterns.

An excellent illustration of this approach to culture comes from Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought (2003). Nisbett addresses the historical and social/psychological foundations of ancient East Asian (China) and Western (Greek) thought, behavior, and society. Then he shows that modern East-West manifestations of mentality, from cross-cultural research, can be traced back to those ancient roots—communalism (East) vs. individualism (West); harmony (East) vs. agency (West); focus on context (East) vs. on the object (West); different patterns of reasoning and thinking, etc. Nisbett’s findings were a revelation to me, especially in reference to Western culture. Instructors working with East-West cultural differences in their classrooms would find his work a very practical source for integrating culture with language teaching for their students.

Before, during, and since the publication of Nisbett’s book, a number of neural studies have shown that East-West cultural differences correspond to patterns of brain activity located in distinctly different areas of the brain. Han and Ma (2014), for example, offer a quantitative meta-analysis of 35 studies examining a number of the same types of East-West culture differences as described in Nisbett. The technicalities need more neuro-background than mine, but the data confirm that cultural differences between East Asians and Westerners “are mediated by distinct neural networks” (p. 293), that is, located in different parts of the brain.

The second approach to cultural differences comes from cognitive science and neuroscience and focuses on the mind’s internal processes—cognition, affect, perception, motivation, reasoning, and others. Neuroimaging studies have shown that a variety of these variables’ effects on neural structure are influenced by culture as well.

Joseph Shaules calls on this work to present an astute and nuanced description of the cognitive and affective processes involved in successful and unsuccessful cross-cultural adaptation (2015). Of particular note is his concept of a continuum from surface to deep culture. Deep culture is “internalized such that it becomes a natural part of how we relate to others—it is configured into our minds at the level of intuition and unconscious expectations” (Kindle Locations 702-704). Encounters with deep culture differences may trigger resistance to adaptation; they also offer alternate ways of perceiving, understanding, and experiencing culture for those who adapt.

Potential for neuroscience to inform us about deep culture in the mind

It is the prospect of understanding more about deep culture from neuroscience that intrigues me. Some writers link neural activity directly with culture (“culture in the brain,” “culture stored in the brain”), but I’d argue that the real significance of neural activity is that it sheds light on the mind. What specifically could deep culture consist of in a person’s mind? This is a question recognized by other interculturalists, too. Kitayama and Uskul state, “The cognitive and emotional structure that anchors the foundational cultural values is not easy to adopt” (2011, p. 429), since it is not easy to observe and is formed early in life.  

However, I suspect we all have an intuition of what this is and I’d like to propose a possibility: As I reflected on Sheena Iyengar’s amusing vignette, each person trying to convince the other about the tea, it came to me that at the core of each person’s mind there were three elements operating (along with their opposites):

A. What is good (desirable, wanted, even loved by the person)

(“plain green tea is not good” vs. “green tea is very healthy”);

B. What is true (wise, correct, right/wrong)

(“I’m entitled to choice” vs. “green tea is correctly drunk without sugar”);

C. What is real (the ordinary reality a person operates in)

(“green tea is just a beverage choice” vs. “green tea is part of the meal”).

The following account better illustrates element C: Some years ago, my small, multi-national class was responding to a story about a sad young man who was unwilling to marry the bride his father had chosen. F., a French speaking student, made a faint scoffing sound and said, “I’d just do what I want.” He and a Thai student had struck up a friendship, and immediately, his Thai friend said, with the utmost seriousness, “It is unthinkable in my country to do that.”

F.’s face immediately changed! Nothing had prepared him for the reality that arranged marriages are still actively practiced in some parts of the world, and now by someone he actually knew. Plus, he’d been inadvertently dismissive about his friend’s culture, hence kind of impolite. In an instant, something had shifted both in F.’s perceptions of his friend’s reality, and in his own reality. I’d say these perceived realities came from a confluence of values, customs, beliefs, etc., grounded in a sense of what is correct, proper, the best way, desirable—i.e., what is “good” and “true.”

The “good” and “true” elements mentioned come from extensive descriptions of the human mind’s core, operating in its mental space, by scientist-theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.[1] He held that what is good and true in a person’s mind might appear in as many forms and varieties as there are people, and could determine compatibility and incompatibility between individuals and among community members. In modern times, we might consider that, with many, this is unconscious. It is not a stretch to consider that cross-cultural discomfort arises when people experiencing an unfamiliar culture encounter other minds, powered by a mentality with goods and truths like their own, but in an unfamiliar range of varieties, manifesting in unfamiliar ways. This could be a significant component of deep culture. The good-true framework is also echoed in the first two parts of the affective-cognitive-sensory/motor framework from basic psychology’s descriptions of the human organism. It suggests some universality and suitability as a working model.

[1] Swedenborg (1688–1772) was a polymath—scientist, statesman, and theologian, whose name was well-known in Europe and North America in the Enlightenment Era (see The good-true theme, in various forms, runs throughout the writing of his later decades. See also Gross, C. G. (1997). Emanuel Swedenborg: A neuroscientist before his time. The Neuroscientist, 3: 142-147.


Of course, “good” and “true” have to be inferred from the components of internal culture that social scientists use to describe collective reality in a society: values, beliefs, attitudes, ideals, perceptions, morals, reasoning patterns, etc. (Fig. 1). That is, we can see how values might emerge from a core sense of what is good/not good, or how habits of reasoning might emerge from both a sense of what is good/not good and true/not true, for example. And the external behavioral manifestations of culture–social institutions, laws, customs, education, and physical artifacts of people operating in culture–in turn flow from the latter.

So, the general promise of neuroscience seems to be that we might be able to “map” the enculturation of the mind in early life, perhaps identifying deep culture elements indirectly. Studies also show that even short-term learning can alter neural structures, so it may eventually be possible to map acculturation through the rest of life as well. This may help us to confirm the elements of culture that are relatively deep and stable in the mind, and that elements are more loosely held, depending on a person’s life circumstances. It may also help us understand in more detail what Shaules identified as the affective and cognitive processes in cross-cultural adaptation and resistance.

Significance for the classroom

Meantime, in the classroom, we can put culture learning to work in language teaching to foster acculturation. It is possible to identify key themes in a target culture: Nisbett offers a synopsis of East-West thought, (2003, p. 44ff); Shaules identifies several well-regarded systems for identifying value systems (2007, Chapter 3); there is an abundance of work available from interculturalists of various disciplines. Language teachers can and should become home/target culture “informants.”

"Neuroscience may help us to confirm the elements of culture that are relatively deep and stable in the mind…."
Christine Winskowski
TT Author

Key concepts or themes in culture can be integrated throughout a language program or individual course. For example, what are the cultural expectations about employer-employee roles in a business communication course (e.g. formality levels, reporting obligations)? Find authoritative information on this and explain your textbook illustrations with it. What are the values operating in casual talk among friends (e.g. level of honesty, intimacy)? Find suitable family drama videos from the home and target cultures. Work with students to identify values, norms, role expectations, etc. that are motivating the characters. What are the discourse patterns in reading texts, and what discourse functions can be observed (e.g. organization type, explicitness/implicitness)? Make flowcharts showing the discourse organizations and functions from short readings. Then have your students try this in small groups (perhaps an eye-opener for instructors) with similar readings. Where it’s suitable for your students, introduce Shaules’ idea of deep culture, and consider what good-true concepts underlie the target language and psychological patterns shown in the classwork. Also consider home language/culture comparisons.

Routine exposure to cultural underpinnings of language will present themes repeatedly to students in different social/cultural contexts, which gradually take on coherence and order in their minds. The best metaphor I know for culture learning comes from the image of watching a tapestry being constructed–from the back, an analogy I encountered from colleagues while giving pre-departure cross-cultural orientations for corporate employees relocating abroad. First, there is an inchoate collection of threads, whose location and colors appear random. Gradually, some rough shapes appear with patches of color. Slowly the shapes and colors take on distinction, resolving into what underlies identifiable parts of a picture. As students get filled in on the details of the target culture, they can begin to perceive assumptions, reasoning, values, etc. operating in the shared mental sphere of people in that culture (what psychologists call a “folk theory of mind”). We can expect that this builds the neural patterns that anchor students’ cross-cultural awareness and adaptation, and we can anticipate that neuroscience may eventually be able to capture the neural correlates of these developments.


  • Han, S., & Ma, Y. (2014). Cultural differences in human brain activity: A quantitative meta-analysis. Neuroimage, 99, 293-300. Retrieved from

  • Kitayama, S., & Uskul, A. K. (2011). Culture, mind, and the brain: Current evidence and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 419–49. doi 10.1146/annurev-psych-120709-145357

  • Nisbett, R. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently…and why. New York: Free Press.

  • Shaules, J. (2007). Deep culture: The hidden challenges of global living. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

  • Shaules, J. (2015). The intercultural mind: Connecting culture, cognition, and global living. Quercus. Kindle Edition.

Christine Winskowski (PhD in Psychology) taught ESL/EFL in the U.S., China, and lately at Iwate Prefectural University, Japan. She also directed programs in ESL and study abroad, and has written and presented on the topics of culture learning, discourse analysis, and student evaluations. Currently, she writes, edits, and consults in Hawaii.

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