Over the years a series of experiments have show differences between American and Asian in terms of the way the brain works. Two examples I give on our accreditation courses are

  1. the multiple experiments with show a difference between a focus on content, and one on context when scanning pictures,
  2. the cow, chicken & grass test from The Geography of Thought. If you have not done this before, then before you read further thick quickly: which if the three is the odd one out?

Now the differences, which I will describe later are normally attributed to culture. I want to speculate that while this is true for the cow, chicken & grass test 0507brain_b.jpgit may be that the content-context distinction is more closely linked to the co-evolution of language and the brain, although both are obviously related. In this I am following Deacon’s outstanding work in The Symbolic Species, and some of my own experimental extensions of the cow, chicken & grass test. More specifically I want to suggest that the difference between phonetic and pictorial alphabets may be one of the main factors in play. The picture here is from this press release, following through from a blog by Thinking Meat. You can see a larger version here. The experiment reported in effect picks up on the cognitive-context work with the addition of a MNR scanner. I will describe the two sets of material and then summarise my speculation.

So firstly to the various experiments. There are a whole range of these, mainly comparing American and Chinese, or American and Japanese subjects. The overall conclusion is that American students have a tendency to focus on the objects in a picture, whereas Asian’s look at the whole context. This means that American’s are more likely to see changes in the object itself. This is also linked to work which shows the scanning range in Asian students is roughly twice that of Americans, although neither are high, 10% and 5% at maximum attention (If anyone has the reference for this data I would appreciated it. I found it in a journal but forgot to take down the reference or keep the paper, one of the problems with reading on line). The MNR scanning data referenced above and other tests all show this object-context difference.

The Cow, chicken and grass test is a simple one. Nisbett reports that the majority of Americans will choose grass, while Asians choose chicken. The reason suggested is that American’s come from the Aristotelian tradition of categorisation and grass is a vegetable while the other two are animals. In contrast Asians see things in terms of relationships, and the cow has a relationship with grass. The following quote, cleaned from a Chinese Embassy publication (which is interesting of itself), suggests two explanations:

Psychologists watching American and Japanese families playing with toys have also noted this difference. “An American mother will say: ‘Look Billy, a truck. It’s shiny and has wheels.’ The focus is on the object,” explains Nisbett. By contrast, Japanese mothers stress context saying things like, “I push the truck to you and you push it to me. When you throw it at the wall, the wall says ‘ouch’.”
Nisbett also cites language development in the cultures. “To Westerners it seems obvious that babies learn nouns morys. But while this is the case in the West, studies show that Korean and Chinese children pick up verbs – which relate objects to each other – more easily.

Now I think there are probably two other factors in play, although I don’t know of any direct research. These are:

  1. The differences between phonetic and pictorial alphabets. In a phonetic language like english you can understand the language by pronouncing the letters and building structures such as sentences etc. Analysis of language and assumptions of common meaning which is context free are more likely in this environment. In contrast pictorial languages provide images, which produce not just an analytic response, but also an aesthetic one. My Chinese friends tell me that you have to understand the context of each image in history and literature in order to fully understand its use. Now there are elements of this in phonetic languages, the use of poetry and cultural references around key phrases, but it is a development of the language to accommodate aesthetics, not a fundamental part of the language itself. Deacon’s work referenced above establishes that the brain and language have co-evolved over time. Language evolves faster than the brain, and has developed to be learnt by people who have not yet learnt how to learn. The evolutionary advantage of this is self-evident but it has some interesting consequences. One is to take away the base assumptions of Chomsky’s theories of language on which much of information technology depends; there are no deep structures which mean that there are very strict limits on common meaning. However as Deacon points out the brain is also influenced by language. So a cultural group with a language based on understanding context is going to influence the brain’s development.
  2. I have taken the cow-chicken-grass test to multiple conferences around the world. but regrettably have not kept precise notes. However I can report that the Asian-American split tends to be 60:40 and the groups who exclude chicken include African, Southern Europe, Latin American and the Celtic Countries of Europe. In contrast, exclusion of grass is the norm in North America, England and Northern-Europe – in other words Anglo-Saxon. So this seems to be a different pattern from one based on language. I think this may relate to the difference between atomistic societies which emphasise the individual, and individual rights (including social contract theory) and those which are more collective in nature, focusing on relationships and obligations. You can also see a religious difference here: Catholic/Hindu/Animism etc form one pattern, while Protestantism, with its emphasis on an individual relationship to God is in the categorisation school.

Now as I say this is a combination of my experience and some reading. It would be interesting to see if some one has (or will) look at extending both the Neuro-science and the cultural mapping experiments to see if there is anything in this. If so it has a lot of implications for multi-cultural studies, going beyond the simple categorisation approaches of Geert Hofstede which I have never liked, to something that is more linked to complex systems, emergent phenomena and strange attractors? Its an area where I think we may now have some capability in the SenseMaker™ to map this as a landscape, which carries meaning but inherent uncertainty. Whatever it is an area that needs more work, and cross cultural understanding is to my mind one of the most important priorities for the world.

Appreciating the nuances of Kipling might be a goal here:

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

There is also some interesting and relating material here, looking at different critical reactions to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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