Advantage for remembering object-context associations in subjects with Eastern-cultural background

Culturally determined differences in perception and cognition are rapidly emerging as a hot topic in modern cognitive neuroscience. Among the most interesting findings on this line of research are observations suggesting that Western people tend to think more analytically (e.g., focus attention on perceptual objects) and people from Eastern cultures tend to think more holistically (e.g., pay attention to contextual details). Naturally, any such effects are in absolute terms small and there is within-culture variability with overlapping distributions, however, given the potential impact such differences bear on, for example, inter-cultural understanding, such findings are highly exciting and significant.

In their recent study, Yang et al. (2013) measured context-dependent vs. context-independent object memory in 71 Canadian and 72 Chinese volunteers. These groups further contained both young and older volunteers to allow examination of interaction of age and culture effects. The memory-encoding task comprised of two blocks: in the first one, the participants rated line-drawing pictures of familiar objects either for their meaningfulness in context of independent living or the typicality of the objects in daily life. In the second block, the objects were rated for their meaningfulness in the context of fostering relationships with other persons or, akin to the control condition of the first block, the typicality of the objects in daily life.

The authors observed that while both groups exhibited similar age-related deterioration in item and context memory, the Chinese subjects significantly outperformed Canadians in context memory, and that this effects was equal in case of both the young and older subjects. These results suggest that due to cultural differences, Chinese have an advantage for memorization of socially meaningful object-context associations. Overall, these highly interesting behavioral findings add to the growing body of evidence indicating that cognitive functions are significantly shaped by the culture that one is brought up in.

Reference: Yang L, Li J, Hasher L, Wilkinson AJ, Yu J, Niu Y. Aging, culture ,and memory for socially meaningful item-context associations: an East-West cross-cultural comparison study. PLoS ONE (2013) 8: e60703. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0060703

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