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Prog Brain Res. 2009;178:175-90. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(09)17812-3.

Culture in the mind's mirror: how anthropology and neuroscience can inform a model of the neural substrate for cultural imitative learning.

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  • 1Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA.


Cultural neuroscience, the study of how cultural experience shapes the brain, is an emerging subdiscipline in the neurosciences. Yet, a foundational question to the study of culture and the brain remains neglected by neuroscientific inquiry: "How does cultural information get into the brain in the first place?" Fortunately, the tools needed to explore the neural architecture of cultural learning - anthropological theories and cognitive neuroscience methodologies - already exist; they are merely separated by disciplinary boundaries. Here we review anthropological theories of cultural learning derived from fieldwork and modeling; since cultural learning theory suggests that sophisticated imitation abilities are at the core of human cultural learning, we focus our review on cultural imitative learning. Accordingly we proceed to discuss the neural underpinnings of imitation and other mechanisms important for cultural learning: learning biases, mental state attribution, and reinforcement learning. Using cultural neuroscience theory and cognitive neuroscience research as our guides, we then propose a preliminary model of the neural architecture of cultural learning. Finally, we discuss future studies needed to test this model and fully explore and explain the neural underpinnings of cultural imitative learning.

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