Profound Impact of Culture on Infant Visual Perception: A Cross-Cultural EEG Exploration

This study explores the ontogenetic origins of cultural differences in human visual perception through an EEG study. Researchers found that infants from Vienna and Kyoto have different ways of seeing things at a young age.

This study offers a new perspective on how culture shapes our earliest stages of visual development.

The results challenged the belief that cultural differences in how we see things start to show up later in childhood.

The Rationale Behind the Research

The study aimed to investigate the underpinnings of cultural differences in visual processing. This phenomenon is well-documented in adults but less understood in infants.

Participants included 71 full-term, typically developing infants from Vienna (35) and Kyoto (36).

The infants were accompanied with their mothers. The researchers used a portable EEG SMARTING to study how the brain responds to objects and background elements in visual scenes.

The researchers showed the elements at different frequencies to separate the brain’s responses.

Cultural Impact on visual perception: EEG Experiment setup

Infants looked at pictures of everyday objects and animals on natural backgrounds, while their brain activity was recorded using SMARTING.

EEG and frequency tagging were used to record and analyse infants’ neural responses to visual stimuli.

The images showed objects and backgrounds at different frequencies (5.67 Hz and 8.5 Hz), as shown in the figure below. This helped researchers identify unique neural signatures.

Visual perception EEG
Experimental paradigm: A – infants viewed 20 natural images with distinct objects and backgrounds in pre-, post-, and interaction phases, with mothers pointing out elements during the interaction. EEG baseline was established before each image.  B- Using frequency tagging at 5.67 or 8.5 Hz, distinct neural responses to objects and backgrounds were elicited.

Signal-to-noise ratios (SNR) were calculated by dividing the spectral power at target frequencies by the average power of surrounding frequencies.

Researchers used this method to separate the neural responses to object and background elements. This helped them understand how infants process visual information.

Results: A Window into Infant Visual Cognition

Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) Analysis: The study showed clear SNR at the stimulation frequencies of 5.67 and 8.5 Hz.

Specifically, in the grand mean activity across pre- and post-phases, there was significant SNR (>1) at these frequencies, indicating effective neural stimulation.

Signal-to-noise Ration, SNR, EEG frequency
Neural response results: A – Frequency tagging significantly enhanced the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) above the baseline at both stimulation frequencies during 0-3000 ms (*** p < .001). B – The SNR at participants’ peak frequencies (in the 4-6 and 7-9 Hz ranges, shown up to 1.15 and 1.35, respectively) was most pronounced at central, parietal, temporal, and occipital electrodes (indicated by black circles).

Cultural Differences in Visual Perception:

Viennese infants showed better ability to distinguish objects from the background. This was true in both the beginning and end of the experiment.

Kyoto Infants had a higher signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) for background elements compared to objects. This was consistent in both phases, as shown in the figure below.

EEG topography, visual processing
Topographies for object and background: (A) and (B) display the neural response topographies for objects and backgrounds in infants from Vienna and Kyoto, showing averaged signal-to-noise ratios (SNR) for each. (C) reveals the relative object versus background activity, calculated as the object SNR divided by the mean of both, with significant cultural differences (*** p < .001).

Maternal Pointing Behavior

Analysis of maternal pointing during the interaction phase revealed cultural variances.

Mothers from Vienna pointed to objects more often (82% on average) than mothers from Kyoto (66.7% on average) as shown in figure below.

cultural differences in visual perception
Maternal Pointing Behavior: Object vs. Background. The violin plots represent the frequency of maternal points towards objects, with individual participants marked as dots. The data shows that Viennese mothers pointed towards objects more frequently compared to mothers from Kyoto, ** p = .002.

Correlation Analysis

In the Vienna sample, mothers pointing at objects had a small connection with infants’ improvement in object scores from before to after the study.

However, this effect was not observed in the Kyoto sample.

These results demonstrate that cultural differences in visual processing. Particularly in how infants from different cultures focus on objects versus backgrounds.

This can already be observed by 12 months of age.

Cultural Influences

This study underscores the significant role of culture in shaping the early development of the visual system. It challenges the idea that cultural differences in how we see things start when we’re older.

However, the study also acknowledges its limitations and the need for further research. The interaction phase was brief, and the data from this phase was not as clear-cut as hoped.

Longer-term, real-life studies are needed to better understand how culture and society affect how we see things.

Implications and Future Directions

This research has far-reaching implications for our understanding of infant development.

It suggests that the visual system is not only biologically driven but also significantly shaped by cultural factors.

The early emergence of these differences points to the need for incorporating cultural context in pediatric healthcare and early childhood education.

Future studies could explore how these early visual preferences evolve as children grow and how they influence other aspects of cognitive and social development.

Additionally, this research could extend to other cultural groups, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the global diversity in human development.

Conclusion: A New Understanding of Infant Visual Development

This study marks a significant step forward in our understanding of how culture shapes human visual processing from a very early age.

It opens up new avenues for research into the neuro-cognitive development of infants, considering the diverse visual, haptic, and social environments they grow up in.

The results emphasize the importance of considering cultural context in studies of early human development and highlight the need for a cross-cultural approach in developmental neuroscience.


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