In this study of cross-cultural differences in body representation participants were challenged to keep count of their own heartbeat simply by listening to their body – a measure of what’s known as interoceptive awareness (IA).
A cue signalled when to start counting and then another marked the end of the trial 20 to 55 seconds later. The participants’ estimates were compared against the true recording taken of their pulse. An important addition to the set-up was that the participants – 20 Westerners and 20 East Asians – completed the challenge either while looking at a photograph of their own face; a photo of a stranger’s face; or while looking at a black computer screen (the baseline condition).
The researchers Lara Maister and Manos Tsakiris separated their participants into two groups based on their IA performance in the baseline condition. The key finding is that looking at their own face enhanced the heart-beat counting accuracy of the Westerners whose baseline performance was poor. Yet no such benefit was experienced by the East Asian participants.
Maister and Tsakiris speculated that the sight of their own face triggers different associations for Westerners and East Asians. For Westerners seeing their own face activates a “self as subject” perspective that aids the processing of other self-related information, including internal bodily signals. By contrast, for East Asians, “the external appearance of the self may activate high-level, conceptual processing of the self from a social perspective.”
Supporting this interpretation, past research has shown cross-cultural differences in brain activity when Westerners and East Asians view their own face, including in areas related to representation of the self.
This study is the first to look at cultural differences in how external (visual) bodily information interacts with internal bodily signals. Caution is need as the sample size was small, as acknowledged by the researchers. Nonetheless they said their results suggest “exteroceptive and interoceptive self-awareness may be integrated in a different way in individuals from East Asian cultures as compared to those from Western cultures.”
Lara Maister and Manos Tsakiris (2013). My face, my heart: Cultural differences in integrated bodily self-awareness. Cognitive Neuroscience DOI: 10.1080/17588928.2013.808613
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