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How Culture Shapes the Brain: Implications for Neural Mechanisms Underlying PTSD in Refugees

How Culture Shapes the Brain: Implications for Neural Mechanisms Underlying PTSD in Refugees

It has long been established that culture is a powerful environmental determinant of human behaviour. Advances in cultural neuroscience are now showing that culture also shapes brain function, including perception, attention, cognitive and emotional systems. One crucial culture factor is self-representation – that is, variations in levels of individualism (which dominate in Western based cultures like Australia) and collectivism (which are prevalent in many non-Western cultural groups). Variations in self-representation may be a central organising framework for information processing in the brain. Self-representation has been shown to alter the neural processes underlying fear responses, attentional biases to threat, autobiographical processing, self-referential processing and attachment and interpersonal processing.

These key affective and cognitive functions are also disrupted in PTSD, yet there has been very little research investigating the role of cultural factors in affecting PTSD mechanisms. Drawing on research conducted in clinical and healthy cohorts in my lab at UNSW Sydney and elsewhere, this presentation will outline a new conceptual model suggesting that culture may be an important modulator of the neural processes underpinning PTSD. The presentation will also discuss implications of this work for understanding PTSD presentations in people with a refugee background.