Culture plays an important role in molding us into the people we are today. It creates an environment of a shared belief, way of thinking, and method interacting among that group of people. It is dynamic and constantly changing across time. The culture you are born into will shape your eating behavior, such as what you eat, when you eat, and even how you eat. It will influence the clothes you choose to wear and the sports you play. Social norms set forth by your culture will determine how you interact with family members, friends, and strangers. Do you shake their hand when you great someone or kiss them on the cheek? It is clear that your environment shapes much of your outward behavior; but did you know that culture also influences brain function, altering the way you think about and perceive the world around you?
The words our culture uses is one such example of this phenomenon. The words our language provides impacts the way we are able to think. In a study done by Frank (2008) Pirahã speakers, a language spoken in small areas of the Amazon, were asked to count varying size groups of objects. However, there are no number words in the Pirahã language. Instead they describe amount do to relative size. Hói discribess a small number hoí describes a slightly larger number, and baágiso describes an even larger number. Thus if the groups were not directly next to each other and relatively the same size, Pirahã speakers could not say which group was larger. Counting is not important in day-to day lives and thus is not represented in their language. The researcher surmised that it was this lack of number language that impacted their perception of quantifies. In this way the words we use limits our cognition and thought. Have you ever been rendered speechless because you did not have the words to express your feelings? Have you ever come across a word in another language that does not exist in your own and are suddenly stunned at how you could have lived for so long without a word to describe that type of experience? In this way, words have a great impact on how we reason and perceive the world.
Furthermore language can also impact the way you think about space. The way one thinks about navigation and spatial knowledge changes depending on whether the language and culture encourages directions based on absolute frames of references (such as north and south) or relative frames of reference ( such as left and right). Kuuk Thaayorre, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia, do not have navigational terms such as ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘backwards,’ or ‘forwards.’ Instead they describe direction in turns of north, south, east, and west. The Kuuk Thaayorre are much better at staying oriented in unfamiliar places compared to people who speak English. Their language forces them to think about space differently than English speakers, making them constantly aware of where north and south is relative to their current location.
Additionally, what we pay attention to and consequently the information we process is also influenced by culture. Many studies have shown Asian and Western cultures to differ in the judgment of relative and absolute sizing of objects as well as the recollection of focal objects vs background of pictures and videos (Chioa et al., 2010). People raised in Asian cultures recall background context and relative size more accurately. On the other hand, people raised in Western culture are able to more accurately perceive the absolute size of objects and remember the focal objects of images more accurately. Goh and Park (2009) found that the brains of people from Asian and Western cultures activate different areas when performing a figure-ground recognition task.
Culture is all around us, shaping our brain and behavior. Consequently, people from various cultures will process the world differently. Furthermore subcultures exist within cultures. Religions, communities, ad regional accents and customs all work to influence your cognition and perception. As more and more research is executed, the idea of human nature dissipates and we see humanity as a group comprised of unique individuals molded by their complex and intricate culture.
Chiao, J. Y., Harada, T., Komeda, H., Li, Z., Mano, Y., Saito, D., … & Iidaka, T. (2010). Dynamic cultural influences on neural representations of the self. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(1), 1-11.
Frank, M. C., Everett, D. L., Fedorenko, E., & Gibson, E. (2008). Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition, 108(3), 819-824.
Joyner, J. (2009, June 29). Language Shapes Thought. Retrieved February 17, 2016, from http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/language_shapes_thou ght/