Your Mother, Your Self?

(While perhaps not exactly a feminist topic, this is surely interesting to feminists)

 It is a cliche that East Asians are less individualistic than typical Westerners.  How deep does the different go, one might well ask.  It’s about as deep as anything gets, recent brain imagining results suggest.  As one report puts it, the Chinese idea of self includes mother.

Here’s the abstract of “Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation.” from NeuroImage (Feb.2007)

Culture affects the psychological structure of self and results in two distinct types of self-representation (Western independent self and East Asian interdependent self). However, the neural basis of culture–self interaction remains unknown. We used fMRI to measured brain activity from Western and Chinese subjects who judged personal trait adjectives regarding self, mother or a public person. We found that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) showed stronger activation in self- than other-judgment conditions for both Chinese and Western subjects. However, relative to other-judgments, mother-judgments activated MPFC in Chinese but not in Western subjects. Our findings suggest that Chinese individuals use MPFC to represent both the self and the mother whereas Westerners use MPFC to represent exclusively the self, providing neuroimaging evidence that culture shapes the functional anatomy of self-representation.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem able to access either journal, so I don’t have information about the size of the sample* or the sex of the individual subjects.  (*Thanks to Jender in the comments for pointing out the need for clarification here.)

UPDATED:  The NeuroImage article arrived about 4 hours after I requested my library get it.   It turns out that the Chinese and the Western samples were extremely similar.  Each  13 young adults (early 20’s), 8 men and 5 women.

9 thoughts on “Your Mother, Your Self?

  1. Amazing if true. And really strange! By the way, I think you meant ‘size of the sample’ rather than ‘size of the individual subjects’!

  2. I should have been clearer: there are actually two articles referred to above. So it looks as though the experiement has been replicated, peer reviewed, etc. The results look to me about as good as one can get. Further, there’s quite a bit of background experimentation and understanding; the field is beyond the ‘let’s put some people in a scanner and see what lights up’ stage.

    The interpretation is another matter, and a reason why I wish more philosophers, particularly feminist philosophers, were involved in the experiments and their interpretations. There’s a huge industry that is constructing a new approach to understanding human beings, and it seems important that feminist thought be well represented.

  3. I think one should be careful about saying “Chinese individuals use MPFC to represent both the self and the mother whereas Westerners use MPFC to represent exclusively the self”

    that sounds like a strong claim compared to

    “Chinese individuals MORE OFTEN use MPFC to represent both the self and the mother whereas Westerners MORE OFTEN use MPFC to represent exclusively the self”
    or for that matter
    “Chinese speakers use…… while English speakers use…”

    Although I guess it is possible that they found strong evidence for what they are suggesting – it just seems very unlikely.

  4. CNZ: Interesting comment; why unlikely?

    The Westerners in the sample had been in China for around a year or less. I would expect that the Chinese students had a reasonable, but probably ‘imperfect’ grasp of English. However, in these studies, what people say need not be relevant, and wasn’t here, as far as I can see.

  5. ps: again, I’d have to look, but my understanding is that there’s a lot of averaging in experiments like this, so they aren’t very sensitive to specific, individual differences.

  6. Just that aside from language structure, culture is highly variable, I know my parents are not much like what I was told is typical of ‘our culture’ and I am probably even more different.

    And between Chinese and European people that I know it is not entirely clear which is more collectivist (although thinking about it parents/self is probably a stronger but still not overwhelming correlation) even though I am sure the experiments are correct on which is more collectivist on average.

    From that I would expect the NeuroImage results to have the same sort of nature. Of course I’m always open to being shown to be wrong, particularly since my reasons for thinking that are all assumptions.

  7. CNZ, now I think I see where you are coming from. Interestingly enough, there’s a related discussion on a neuroeconomics blog at:
    The author thinks the experiments raise difficult questions about what culture is and what components of it create the differences being seen.

    I think I’m approaching it all from a different angle from yours. It seems as though “we” (Westerners) have an intuitive grasp of Descartes’ insistence that he was aware of a self. Recent thought might have put the idea of a substantial self under some question, but Western society tends to treat conflating yourself and another person as pathological, either down right insane or at least making a bad failure to mature.
    Finding out that there are even some members of another social tradition who are regarded as well functioning, but who do not have this fundamental separation of the self from all others seems to me remarkable. I’d assume there are pretty strong forces in their society producing that result, just as there are pretty strong forces in ours that leave us feeling that we have a fully independent self. And I’d expect such strong forcs to impact pretty much everyone.
    This reflection pretty much begs the question against your point, so I mean it just to indicate a different starting point and a different set of assumptions.

  8. “It seems as though “we” (Westerners) have an intuitive grasp of Descartes’ insistence that he was aware of a self.”
    No. It seems Descartes was a product of his time and place.
    Like D, you’re putting the cart before the horse.
    Individualism is cultural.
    Experience is a heuristic. Culture produces chemistry.
    No biggie.

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