Study suggests collectivism is associated with particular pattern of brain connectivity

Brain scientists in Russia have found preliminary evidence that collectivism is associated with a unique pattern of brain connectivity.

“Cultural attitudes are mostly acquired during childhood and adolescence in family and school environments and we may not realize how these attitudes ‘dictate’ the mode of our thoughts and the pattern of our brain’s activity even in a state of rest,” explained study author Gennady G. Knyazev of the Institute of Physiology and Basic Medicine in Novosibirsk.

“Our data show that collectivist attitude prompts the engagement of brain regions involved in semantic processes and reasoning on moral issues, which, in its turn, prompt the appearance of others-related thoughts.”

The findings were published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology.

“Collectivism-individualism is one of the major dimensions of culture and each culture has its position on this dimension,” Knyazev told PsyPost. “For instance, the United States is considered the most individualistic culture, whereas China and other East-Asian cultures are mostly collectivists.

“A typical individualist sees him/herself as fundamentally separate from others, whereas a typical collectivist considers him/herself as a representative of a group (e.g., family, social class, ethnic group and so on).”

“On the other hand, in mixed cultures, such as Russia, different individuals may endorse collectivist or individualist values to different degrees, and in the contemporary world, this increasingly becomes the case for almost any culture,” Knyazev said. “It could be expected that in a quiet resting condition, a collectivist would spontaneously think more about his/her close friends or relatives, whereas an individualist would think more about him/herself.”

“This association between cultural attitude and the content of thoughts has to have some reflection in the activity of the brain and we were interested to find out how brain’s activity mediates this association. The default mode network (DMN) is the brain functional network that is most active in the resting condition and is involved in self-referential and social cognition.”

“Therefore, we selected the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) as one of the major DMN hubs and tested whether connectivity between the mPFC and the rest of the brain mediates the relationship between collectivism and others-related thoughts,” Knyazev explained.

In the study of 85 adults, the participants sat in a soundproof dimly-lit room while the researchers recorded their brain activity with an EEG for 10 minutes. Afterward, the participants completed a survey to assess their spontaneous thoughts.

The researchers found that people who endorsed more collectivist values were more likely to spontaneously think about their relationships with other people.

Collectivism was also associated with enhanced connectivity between the mPFC and areas of the brain associated with empathy and moral reasoning, along with a diminished connectivity between the mPFC and the posterior cingulate cortex

“The major caveat is that both collectivist attitude and the content of thought have been measured by means of self-report questionnaires, which are vulnerable to social desirability biases,” Knyazev said.

“In the future research, different cultural backgrounds could be used as a proxy of cultural attitudes instead of self-report measures. However, self-report is the only means to learn the content of someone‚Äôs thoughts. Another caveat is that we used EEG for measuring brain activity and this method has low spatial resolution. A replication of these findings by means of fMRI is desirable.”

“A caution should be exercised in the interpretation of these findings, which should be taken as a first approach to this highly complicated issue.”

The study, “Resting state connectivity mediates the relationship between collectivism and social cognition“, was co-authored by Alexander N. Savostyanova, Andrey V. Bocharova, and Ekaterina A. Merkulova.