Culture influences the songs we sing, the steps we dance and the words we write. It also shapes our brains. Scientists have long known that neuroplasticity allows individual events to sculpt the brain's form and function. Now there is evidence that life experience as intangible as culture can also reorganize our neural pathways. Recent research has found that culture influences the way a person's brain perceives visual stimuli such as scenes and colors.

In one study, psychologists showed people 200 complex scenes, such as an elephant in a jungle or an airplane flying over a city, while scanning their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The team, led by Denise C. Park of the University of Illinois, studied young and elderly subjects from the U.S. and Singapore. For Westerners of all ages, the images triggered activity in a part of the brain associated with object recognition called the lateral occipital region, whereas the same object-associated areas were not activated in the older Asians' brains.

“An Asian would see a jungle that happened to have an elephant in it,” Park explains. “Meanwhile a Westerner would see the elephant and might notice the jungle.” Because the Asian subjects' responses differed between the two generations, while the older Americans matched the youths in their interpretation of the landscapes, the researchers concluded that the culture people grow up in plays a role in how they interpret what they see.

Language, says Stanford University cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, helps to convey and maintain a culture's conventions—and similarly affects perception. In an unrelated study, she found that Russian speakers, whose language includes two words that make a mandatory distinction between light blue and dark blue, could more quickly distinguish between shades of the color than English speakers could. In this case, language meddled in the simple task of differentiating among hues. With an infinite number of ways to perceive the world, Boroditsky says, every culture's guidebook helps to focus our brain's attention on the characteristics most important to our life.