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
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 it 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:
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