East Meets West: How the Brain Unites Us All

Ed Yong at the New Scientist discusses the conventional notions of an ‘individualist, analyitical’ Western and a ‘collectivist, holistic’ Eastern one, and how a recent psychological experiment coupled with brain imaging suggests this oft-posed contrast between Eastern and Western paradigms of reality is but a spurious dichotomy.

Nowhere is our love affair with otherness more romanticised than in our attitudes towards the cultures of east and west. Artists and travellers have long marvelled that on opposite sides of the globe, the world’s most ancient civilisations have developed distinct forms of language, writing, art, literature, music, cuisine and fashion. As advances in communications, transport and the internet shrink the modern world, some of these distinctions are breaking down. But one difference is getting more attention than ever: the notion that easterners and westerners have distinct world views.

Psychologists have conducted a wealth of experiments that seem to support popular notions that easterners have a holistic world view, rooted in philosophical and religious traditions such as Taoism and Confucianism, while westerners tend to think more analytically, as befits their philosophical heritage of reductionism, utilitarianism and so on. However, the most recent research suggests that these popular stereotypes are far too simplistic. It is becoming apparent that we are all capable of thinking both holistically and analytically – and we are starting to understand what makes individuals flip between the two modes of thought.

[…]Clearly, the dichotomy between holistic eastern and analytical western thinking is more blurred than the stereotypes suggest. If we all flip between different modes of thought depending on social context, says Oyserman, psychologists should be trying to find out which contexts provoke the holistic and which the analytical mindset, rather than perpetuating a false divide.

April 10, 2009, 7:56 PM
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