Liya Yu — Writing. Neuropolitics. Activism.


Who am I between the cultures? Cultural neuroscience’s new questions for the Self

I stand at the iron-cast main gate of Columbia University and look back one last time onto the snow covered campus before I take down the stairs to the 116th Street subway station. Today was one of those days again on which I did not have to ask myself perpetually who I am. In the seminar rooms, the library, the food halls and rambling corridors of Morningside campus’ pre-war buildings, the peculiar combination of my Chinese looks and British English with a German accent passes without comment. Rather, in the good old New York convention of unshakable indifference and mild impatience, people focus on the essentials: their response to my comments on the seminar text, my overdue library fees, my signature for the Earl Grey tea bill…

It has been a good day for me. This way, I could also focus on the essential part in me. But what does it mean, to be oneself? This question jumps at me the moment I leave the snow covered campus and walk into the noisy subway train filled with identities and chatter from everywhere. Whereas on campus it’s all about the distillation of the thinking Self (and the apparatus that keeps it running), outside of it, we are thrown into expressing, negotiating, enjoying and suffering at the hands of our identities and self-experiments, in wrapping yet another one of those countless cloaks of cultural norms around what we call the Self.

But is the idea of the cloaked Self not in itself a naïve fiction – as if there were something at our core that is awaiting to be peeled out and distilled? Is it possible at all to distinguish a specific Self from all the cultural identities that make up who we are? How far, in Hegel’s sense, can Sitten and Bildung permeate us? Are we literally our cultural customs or is there something that can escape these cloaks? Who am I when I move effortlessly over the snow-muffled Columbia campus and think and talk without having to constantly be reminded of my skin color, my whimsical biography and my language barriers, and who am I indeed when I feel so deeply touched by the snippets of Chinese, German and English that fly across the subway train?

Research in the novel field of cultural neuroscience is asking exactly those questions. Studies have shown that the influence of cultural practices can lead to profound differences in brain mechanisms – affecting how we perceive objects, colors, other human beings, ourselves, and even the way how we reason mathematically (Ames and Fiske, 2010). For example, both Western and East Asian people display activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex when asked to think about themselves (Kelley et al., 2002; Zhang et al., 2006), but only East Asian people exhibit activity in the same regions when asked to think about their mother (Zhu, Zhang, Fan und Han, 2007). What this means is that East Asians have a distinct conception of Self that includes not only themselves but also immediate others – the Self is not understood in an isolated fashion but in a relational manner to others and society.

Cultural psychologists have been claiming cultural differences in one’s sense of Self for some while. The evidence at the brain level confirms psychological theories of the independent Western and interdependent East Asian Self developed by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991). This theory is based on the hypothesis that cultural influences such as Confucianism contribute to East Asians viewing themselves as socially contextual beings who mainly make sense of themselves through their ties to family and friends. Unlike in the West, the East Asian Self is not treated as an independent entity. Other cultural psychologists studying Western and Japanese children’s idea of self were able to show that this dichotomy might be flawed, since Japanese children could make self-descriptions in both independent and interdependent styles (Killen et al. 2002). However, the brain evidence from cultural neuroscience is still compelling – it shows that at least once people reach adulthood, cultural influences can be powerful enough result in distinctly different brain mechanism during self-processing.

Cultural neuroscientists have also looked into the effect of religion on our sense of Self. For example, only Christians exhibit brain activity in their dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area engaged in third-person perception, when thinking about themselves (Han et. al 2008). Once again the brain evidence confirms psychological theories; previously, we assumed that Christians judge themselves through the eyes of God and that this affected from which perspective they viewed themselves. Buddhists, however, in accordance with the Buddhist principle of “anatta” (i.e. no-self), do not exhibit brain activity in the typical regions when thinking about themselves – through repeated religious practice of self-denial, they have managed to modify their neuronal dynamics altogether (Wu, Wang et al. 2010). Curiously, the experiment on the Christians and Buddhists were conducted at Beijing University with Han atheists, Han Christians and Tibetan Buddhists, reminding us that differences in self-perception do not just appear between different cultural societies but also within one society.

This kind of intercultural variation in our self-perception opens a host of hard philosophical questions. It certainly throws the universal application of the Western liberal model of Self in a critical light. In John Stuart Mill’s famous work On Liberty (1859), only “cultivation of individuality brings humans nearer to the best thing they can be” because only the individual Self that has freed herself from society’s restraints can find true happiness. Although Mill does take into account the significance of society’s influence and the need to consider our fellow human beings in the ultimate quest for individuality, his message is clear: we can only become full human beings when we are our own last judge and have emancipated ourselves from our surrounding cultural norms. But in light of cultural neuroscience’s discoveries, Mill’s thesis becomes questionable. Are East Asians or Buddhists unable to attain true happiness because their cognitive experience of Self is not based on Mill’s ideal? Can we only find happiness and true humanity in the cultivation of Western individuality?

A rejection of these questions points to the field of postmodern critical theory and its questioning of the liberal idea of Self. Postmodernists argue that non-western and pre-modern societies deserve at least the same level of recognition and consideration as the prevailing post-Enlightenment, modern Western ideal of society. Critics of postmodernism object that this kind of perspective can lead to the circumventing of important normative questions, and even a kind of moral relativism in relation to universal values such as human rights.

An unexpected dissenter of this postmodern turn is V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian writer and literature Nobel prize winner, who himself is a traveler between the cultures of his birth place Trinidad, his Indian heritage and his self-chosen home of England. In a speech given at the Manhattan Institute of New York (1992), he pleads for the ideals of a ‘universal civilization’, which he describes as

“(…) the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery (…) I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But is it known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

For Naipaul, this ideal could not be found within the cultural confinements of his birth place Trinidad, but only in the Great Britain – and particularly London – of his time. Sure enough, Naipaul mocks the flawed self-conception of the people in the Trinidad of his childhood with a tenderness and empathy that at once forgives and understands them for who they are – yet he is certain that as a writer, he could have only flourished in the societies of Western modernity.

Naipaul’s unusual biography of arriving in 1950s England as a dark-skinned young man from a small postcolonial Caribbean island would not surprise us that much anymore today. In our current hypermobile world people travel and immigrate – whether that is due to economic or political pressures or due to the privilege of socio-economic resources – from non-Western peripheries to the centers of the Western world all the time. So many unforeseeable identity cloaks will be put on within a lifetime. It gets increasingly more difficult to draw clear lines between Western and non-Western narrations of ourselves and within self-conceptions at the brain level. I and other people who are moving along Columbia University’s campus and in the streets of New York are witnesses of this new experience of carrying multiple cultural identities within one brain.

Naipaul’s position has been rightly attacked for many reasons (I cannot help admiring him for doing such an excellent job at being loathed though – it would be much easier to make himself being loved by the postmodern crowd): the arrogance and arbitrariness of his cultural judgments, his limited and unfair depiction of pre-modern and non-Western societies, his haughtiness, his glorification and misconstruction of modernity and Western ideals. And yet, when he speaks of the ‘universal civilization’ in this still crisp talk in New York over 20 years ago, I knew immediately and exactly what he was referring to. It is this experience that I encounter on Columbia campus and many places within New York – but sadly not in my twin homeland, my Zwillingsheimatland, Germany, where I am always the perpetual foreigner to too many Germans – this experience of partaking in what feels like a universal way of being human together, which becomes the basis of a precious sense of freedom. I would counter Naipaul however that this freedom is not necessarily particular to a specific culture but can blossom wherever people find ways within their culture to humanize the foreign Other.

The German original of this blog post can be found here at the Hannover Philosophy Institute’s blog.


Ames, D.L. & Fiske, S. (2010) Cultural Neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13 (2), 72-82.

Kelley, W.M., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C.L., Caglar, S., Inati, S.&Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the Self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14 (5), 785-794.

Killen, M., McGlothlin, H., Lee-Kim, J. (2002) Between individuals and culture: individuals’ evaluations of exclusion from social groups, in: Between Culture and Biology (eds. Keller et al.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Markus, H.R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98 (2), 224-253.

Mill, J.S. (1993) On Liberty, London: Orion.

Naipaul, V.S. (2002) Postscript: Our universal civilization, in: V.S. Naipaul, The Writer and the World, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wu, Y., Wang, C., He, X., Mao, L. & Zhang, L. (2010) Religious beliefs influence neural substrates of self-reflection in Tibetans. Social and Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 5 (2-3), 324-331.

Zhang, L., Zhou, T., Zhang, J., Liu, Z., Fan, J. & Zhu, Y. (2006). In search of the Chinese self: An fMRI study. Science in China Series C: Life Sciences, 49 (1), 89-96.

Zhu, Y., Zhang, L., Fan, J. & Han, S. (2007). Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation. Neuroimage, 34 (3), 1310-1316.