In case you weren’t already convinced that cultural differences matter, brain research proves it. Culture shapes the wiring of our brains.

Dr. Ying-Yi Hong did brain scans of American and Chinese students attending the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The students were placed in an MRI head scanner and shown a series of images, including the one below:

There was a consistent difference between the neural activities that occurred in the American students versus the Chinese. The scans revealed that the American students placed primary attention on the “object” in the picture—the sheep. The Chinese students placed primary attention on the context of the picture—the lobby. And there was a greater level of anxiety among the Chinese students regarding the incongruence of a sheep standing in a lobby than found among the American students. Hong’s findings are consistent with what many neuroscientists have found when examining Westerners’ versus Easterners’ brains.

Hong’s first scans in this study were taken shortly after the Chinese students arrived in the U.S. She repeated the experiment several months later. This time the brain activity in the Chinese students looked much more similar to the scans of the American students, which remained largely unchanged. Hong’s findings suggest:

1. Culture shapes our neurological wiring but it’s not permanent

2. Cross-cultural experiences can change neurological activations

This is fascinating material. But practitioners will inevitably ask, “So what”?

On the one hand, this gives us “hard science” to prove that culture matters. There are very real differences in how we process information. And studies like Hong’s (there are many others) prove that cultural differences are not simply imagined—they’re real. But most of us have plenty of life experiences to give us enough hard data there. Do we really need brain research to convince us?

What I find far more enlightening and revealing is the way this research validates the fact that “flexibility”—that elusive end-all, which is always promoted in cross-cultural training—really is possible. We can re-wire our brains for different cultural settings—and wire them back again. Westerners can see as Chinese do—at least in part—and vice versa.

Some promising findings are emerging from efforts to combine cultural neuroscience with the research on cultural intelligence, or CQ. From the very beginning, the study of cultural intelligence has sought to move the emphasis away from comparing cultures to learning what capabilities are needed to effectively bridge cultures. Studying cultural differences is a piece of the equation but it’s many people correctly spout of various cultural differences and remain totally inept at effectively working outside their own culture.

The research on cultural intelligence demonstrates that individuals who attend to their motivation, thinking, and behavior for cross-cultural work are able to improve the way they adjust and perform cross-culturally. Similarly, neurological research is further supporting that an emphasis on the four capabilities of CQ (drive, knowledge, strategy, and action) and the related interventions will increase the flexibility of our brains and thus behavior.

Rather than working so hard to master all the do’s and don’ts of various cultures, a far better approach is to work on developing a dynamic skill set that provides insights and effectiveness in any culture.

Take for example, the importance of being able to accurately interpret people’s facial expressions. Whether you’re conducting a meeting, negotiating a deal, or simply hanging out with someone, it’s vital to be able to read nonverbal cues. There’s a higher level of activity in the region of the brain associated with emotion processing when we’re asked to identify the emotions of people from our own background than when asked to do so for people who don’t “look” like us. Most of us were never formally taught what various facial expressions mean in our culture. It’s just something we’ve learned subconsciously while growing up in our families and communities.

Cultural neuroscientists are exploring how to help people have the same kind of subconscious understanding and empathy when interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds. Some cross-cultural approaches emphasize learning a lot of specific facial expressions as used in different cultures. But the cultural intelligence approach is more focused upon discovering how to “learn on the fly”, pick up on cues, and find ways to incorporate what’s discovered into one’s understanding and behavior. It appears that this kind of approach, together with increased multicultural interactions can elevate the level of brain activity we have when processing the emotions of those from outside our culture. This in turn will result in better cross-border management and communication.

The preliminary research on a “culturally intelligent brain” is very promising. Multicultural experiences by themselves do not ensure that we’ll increase the flexibility of our thinking and behavior. But when we do the hard work of improving our CQ, we are in fact increasing our mental flexibility, which not only improves our cross-cultural effectiveness but our quality of life and work in numerous other areas as well.

For more on the research of cultural intelligence and cultural neuroscience, visit Note particularly the article by Rockstuhl, Hong, et. al. on the culturally intelligent brain.

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