Researchers have found that the cognitive responses of highly sensitive individuals are not influenced by culture at all.
The finding by Dr. Arthur Aron, Professor of Psychology at Stony Brook University, and colleagues, came after previous brain imaging research that revealed cultural influences play a role in neural activation during perception.
The study could serve as a foundation for the direction of study in the emerging field of cultural neuroscience.
"Our data suggest that some categories of individuals, based on their natural traits, are less influenced by their cultural context than others," said Aron.
He added that the study is the first to analyse how a basic temperament/personality trait, called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), interacts with culture and neural responses.
SPS is characterized by sensitivity to both internal and external stimuli, including social and emotional cues.
Scientists estimate that something like high sensitivity is found in approximately 20 percent of more than 100 species, from fruit flies and fish to canines and primates and has evolved as a particular survival strategy that differs from the majority.
The standard measure in humans is the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Scale, previously developed by Aron and his wife, Dr. Elaine Aron.
The researchers measured SPS in 10 East Asian individuals temporarily in the U.S. and 10 Americans of Western-European ancestry.
The major finding of that study was that the frontal-parietal brain region known to be engaged during attention-demanding tasks was more activated for East Asians when making judgments ignoring context, not their specialty, but was more activated for Americans when making judgments when they had to take context into account, not their specialty.
The discovery, illustrated that each group engaged this attention system more strongly during a task more difficult for them because it is not generally supported by their cultural context, said Aron.
This means that even when doing a simple, abstract cognitive task, culture influences perception.
In the SPS study, Aron and colleagues took the brain activations in these two groups from the previous study and considered them in light of the SPS scores of the same individuals.
They found SPS as a trait yielded a very clear pattern of results:
"The influence of culture on effortful perception was especially strong for those who scored low on the scale measuring sensitivity, but for those who scored high on the measure (highly sensitive individuals), there was no cultural difference at all," said Aron.
Regarding the fMRI, he added: "Culture did not influence the degree of activation of highly sensitive individuals' brains when doing the two kinds of perceptual tasks used in the previous study. Also, how much they identified with their culture had no effect. It was as if, for them, culture was not an influence on their perception."
Dr. Aron emphasized that the new research suggests that characteristics possessed by high SPS individuals, such as being emotionally reactive or conscientious, actually flow out of or are side effects of the overriding feature of processing information more thoroughly than low SPS individuals.
The study has been published in advance online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.