Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Culture’s Influence of Our Worldview Potentially Impacts Building System Commissioning

Not only does culture provide us with written and unwritten rules, or norms, for interacting with the world around us and shaping our memory and perception, but it also appears to influence the actual wiring of our brains. In a report in the July, 2010 Perspectives on Psychological Science journal, psychologists from the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discuss how brain structure / function are influenced by culture, summarized here. This report builds on earlier studies, including a 2008 study conducted by a joint team from the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Stanford University, summarized here.


Previous behavioral science research has established that American culture, which values the individual, emphasizes the independence of objects from their contexts, while East Asian societies emphasize the collective and the contextual interdependence of objects. The 2008 study mentioned above attempted to determine if they could actually “see” these differences in the brain itself. The researchers “… asked 10 East Asians recently arrived in the United States and 10 Americans to make quick perceptual judgments while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner – a technology that maps blood flow changes in the brain that correspond to mental operations.”

Image by Trey Hedden, McGovern
Institute for Brain Research at MIT
These brain scan images from the 2008 study mentioned above show brain activity in East Asians and Americans as they make relative and absolute judgments. “The arrows point to brain regions involved in attention that are engaged by more demanding tasks. Americans show more activity during relative judgments than absolute judgments, presumably because the former task is less familiar and hence more demanding for them. East Asians show the opposite pattern.” It would appear that our culture “trains” our brain to process information in certain ways – training that begins early in our youth.

We are in essence given cultural scripts at birth that impact how our brain is wired, influencing our perceptions of the world around us as well as how we interpret the sensory stimuli that we receive and process. Paul Dourish, a human/computer interface researcher at the University of California, Irvine, put it this way: “Culture is what helps me tell the difference between anger and indigestion; it is generative of the experience.”

Culture therefore provides a lens through which to view and interpret the world and so helps generate our specific experiences. Such differences in how cultural groups communicate and process information can lead to potential conflicts or challenges within our built environments. Take lighting controls as an example. This image is of a Lutron Grafik Eye QS lighting controller. In the US when we talk about preset lighting scene controls, we use the term lighting zone to refer to the set of lights or lighting circuits controlled together. Zone 1, zone 2, zone 3, etc. - an individual entity in and of itself. If you look at the literal translations of some Chinese lighting product guides, they appear to be using the phrase “fixture groups” instead of using another separate term that subsumes the individual fixtures into one entity.

Such differences in terminology and phrasing that result from different cultural scripts have the potential to create havoc when communicating technical information cross culturally. At the very least this could extend the time required to commission a lighting control system if the commissioning agent is East Asian and the control system and/or its product guide were produced in the US (or vice versa), simply due to the difficulties in interpreting a document produced by someone with a different perception of the world around them. Some may only see this only as an annoyance, but it would never-the-less result in additional commissioning time not likely accounted for when the fees were put together. And neither is this limited to lighting control systems or these two cultural groups.

And so ends my inaugural post, providing a sample of the types of topics I’ll likely be addressing. I’ll be looking at the reciprocal relationships between people and their built environments, how those relationships impact the performance of both buildings and their occupants, and how they impact our quality of life. I’ll also be using insights from anthropology to comment on the building construction industry itself. While many of these posts will draw upon my professional life and experiences, the opinions expressed in these posts are solely my own and are not meant to be seen as representing the opinions of my employer.

No comments:

Post a Comment