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Can culture dictate the way we see?

The way the primary visual cortex in the brain develops, may not be hardwired after all, but may develop according to experience, according to some fairly stunning revelations from the University of Illinois in Urbana, US, in early 2007.

Denise Park and her colleagues recruited 37 young and elderly volunteers within their community, as well as people from similar age groups in Singapore. They found that the brains of older East Asian people respond less strongly to changes in the foreground of images than those of their Western counterparts.

There are two possible explanations for this difference: genetic drift, or culture influences development of areas of the brain long presumed to be set in stone - like the part that handles eyesight.

The researchers suggested this difference was due to an increased emphasis on the background, or context, of images in some Asian cultures.

The suggestion then is whilst the primary visual cortex is likely hardwired into place (if each had to grow independently, a lot of people's eyes would not work as neurons had connected improperly) the development and strengthening of one connection path over another may be partially influenced by culture. The same paths would be present for everybody, just different ones given more nerve fiber over time by culturally dictated usage.

Original study details:

The subjects each viewed a series of 200 pictures while their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers varied either the foreground or background of the images to see if responses varied between the groups.

The researchers found expected differences between the age groups. There was a lower response by the hippocampus - a brain region which seems to help the mind connect a particular object to its background - among older subjects in both groups compared with their younger counterparts.

Importantly, they found no significant difference in the response of this particular visual processing region among young people in the US and Singapore. This, the team says, supports the idea that, over the course of decades, culture shapes how the brain perceives images.

Implications for Virtual Vision

If it is indeed accurate that the culture a person is exposed to, over long stretches of time, affects how parts of the brain strengthen or weaken, then it ranges the possibility that in long-term, full VR immersion in a social environment other than that of a person's birth, would work to alter how their mind works to blend in with the new culture.

We are decades away from the point where role-played environments unlike those experienced normally, can be immersed into to that extent by a person without access to a million pound budget, and just as far from the point where such can be sustained continually for the required decades. However, incremental effects may be a possibility in less immersive environments, over just as substantial periods of time.

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