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Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience approach

Denise Park, PhD, Pro­fes­sor of Behav­ioral and Brain Sciences, University Dis­tin­guished Chair of Behav­ioral and Brain Science, University of Texas Regents’ Research Scholar; Director, Cen­ter for Vital Longevity, University of Texas at Dal­las   Web­site  |  Pub­li­ca­tions

Abstract: There is clear evi­dence that sus­tained expe­ri­ences may affect both brain struc­ture and func­tion. Thus, it is quite rea­son­able to posit that sus­tained expo­sure to a set of cul­tural expe­ri­ences and behav­ioral prac­tices will affect neural struc­ture and func­tion. The bur­geon­ing field of cul­tural psy­chol­ogy has often demon­strated  sub­tle behav­ioral dif­fer­ences in the way indi­vid­u­als process information—differences that appear to be a prod­uct of cul­tural expe­ri­ences.  I will present evi­dence  that the col­lec­tivis­tic and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic biases of East Asian and West­ern cul­tures, respec­tively, affects neural struc­ture and func­tion. I argue that there is lim­ited evi­dence that cul­tural expe­ri­ences affect brain struc­ture and con­sid­er­ably more evi­dence that neural func­tion is affected by cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly acti­va­tions in ven­tral visual cortex—areas asso­ci­ated with per­cep­tual processing.

Bio:  Dr. Park has spent her career study­ing how the mind ages, mak­ing sem­i­nal con­tri­bu­tions to our under­stand­ing of how the oper­at­ing speed and capac­ity of the human brain changes as we get older, how cul­tural expe­ri­ences can shape brain activ­ity, and how the aging brain might pro­tect itself from struc­tural degra­da­tion to main­tain cog­ni­tive performance.

She cur­rently directs the Dal­las Lifes­pan Brain Study, which aims to iden­tify a “neural sig­na­ture” in middle-aged adults that will help pre­dict who will and will not age well, as well as who might be at risk of Alzheimer’s dis­ease long before symp­toms appear. She also leads the Synapse Project, which is sys­tem­at­i­cally test­ing whether an engaged lifestyle can slow down the process of cog­ni­tive aging by facil­i­tat­ing the devel­op­ment of sup­port­ive neural scaffolds.

Dr. Park has been con­tin­u­ously funded by the National Insti­tute on Aging (NIA) for more than 25 years, and in 2006, was hon­ored with a pres­ti­gious MERIT award. She is a fel­low of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence and the Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence and a recip­i­ent of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Association’s award for Dis­tin­guished Con­tri­bu­tions to the Psy­chol­ogy of Aging. She recently served on an inter­na­tional panel spear­headed by the NIA and the Alzheimer’s Asso­ci­a­tion that issued new cri­te­ria for diag­nos­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease and a new research agenda for study­ing the ear­li­est stages of the dis­ease, and she cur­rently chairs the exter­nal sci­en­tific advi­sory board for the Max Planck Insti­tute for Human Devel­op­ment in Berlin.

She earned her bachelor’s degree from Albion Col­lege in Michi­gan and her PhD in exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­ogy from the State Uni­ver­sity of New York at Albany. She moved to UT Dal­las in 2008 after pro­fes­sor­ships at the Uni­ver­sity of Geor­gia, Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, and Uni­ver­sity of Illinois.