Liya Yu — Neuropolitics. Literature. Activism.

Can you add up identities like cabbages?

Just as summer is around the corner at the East Coast, I remember a conversation last year with the Princeton-based British composer Andrew Lovett on a hot, sultry day overlooking a small vegetable garden in New Jersey, on whether one could add up identities like, well, cabbages (the clumsy vegetable metaphor is mine, not his).

Andrew was telling me about a Yom Kippur service he once attended at Princeton, where four undergraduates were asked to use this occasion to publicly talk about their Jewish identity. Their speeches were moving and polished, and yet, one comment seemed odd. One of the young speakers talked about how he was glad that his Jewish identity allowed him to have two instead of ‘just’ one identity: almost as if one could arrange one’s identities in a row in a field, watch each of them sprout and then count them up neatly. (There is, of course, another implication in that young man’s comment about denying complexity and complication to secular identities, as if all non-religious identities were banally ‘simple’ and somehow a bit deficient – but this shall be the topic of a future blog post).

Studies on the bicultural brain by Joan Chiao (2010) and her colleagues at Northwestern University asked whether Asian-Americans would be able to activate the Western or East Asian aspects of their bicultural sense of Self respectively, when primed to think about themselves in one particular cultural manner. Basically, priming consisted in people reading a story and being asked to describe themselves in an either East Asian or Western way. I have written previously about measurable cultural differences in people’s brain mechanism in terms of an East Asian interdependent or Western dependent sense of Self. Chiao and her colleagues found out that bicultural individuals could in fact activate the two different cultural selves within them at the brain level, in response to targeted priming. It suggests that the activation of different identities at the brain level is a dynamic process and that the idea of drawing neat lines between our identities might not be possible. For me, the insight is that it is all happening within one brain, meaning, there are no cabbages for us to count up but only the enigma left of who it is that our brain is becoming as we continue to absorb more identities.

The dynamics of the multicultural brain are not the only way through which our lines of Self become blurred. Cultural neuroscientists also looked at the effects of cultural exposure over time and ageing. In Joshua Goh’s (2007) study on young and old Singaporeans, the East Asian preference for context-and background information in visual processing (versus the Western preference for central objects — basically this means that when looking at a picture of a helicopter flying over the Alps, East Asians will first notice the Alps and Westerners will focus on the helicopter) was more pronounced in older Singaporeans than younger ones. ‘Cultural differences became apparent only in older subjects who had had more exposure to their respective cultural environments than the young subjects had had’, pointing to the significance of experience over time and its effect on cultural identities within different generations.

On top of this, Goh’s study found that both elderly Westerners and elderly Singaporeans displayed loss of neural tissue in a brain area that usually engages in the representation of associative information, i.e. the process of linking central objects with their backgrounds in visual processing, making it harder as we get older to link the helicopter to the Alps…

So where does this leave us? Beyond cabbages and the neat adding-up of identities that are yet to come along my way, I am drawn to the fact that the ageing brain brings about changes in one’s perception that everybody will experience across cultures one day in their lives. In this light, the image of the vegetable garden and its seasonal changes of growth and decay and perpetual self-renewal seems rather appealing to dwell on as I lift the receiver to give Andrew that long-due to call to arrange for another summer day’s meeting in the thickets of New Jersey.


Chiao, J. Y., Harada, T., Komeda, H., Li, Z., Mano, Y., Saito, D., et al. (2010) “Dynamic cultural influences on neural representations of the Self”, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22, 1–11.

Goh, J. O., Chee, M. W., Tan, J. C., et al. (2007) “Age and culture modulate object processing and object–scene binding in the ventral visual area”, Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7 (1), 44–52.


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