Experience changes the brain and one universal mediator of a person’s experience is their culture. In my research I use neuroimaging to explore how culture shapes the brain and how brain acquires and shapes culture.  To address these questions I combine theory and methologies from several traditionally distant, but fundamentally related disciplines: neuroscience, psychology and anthropology.

Neural underpinnings of cultural imitative learning

My current research focuses on the neural underpinnings of cultural acquisition.  The nascent field of cultural neuroscience is  beginning to reveal how culture shapes the brain, however, far less is known about how cultural information gets into the brain in the first place.  I study imitation, a primary means of cultural acquisition.  Specifically, I focus on imitative biases, i.e. people’s tendencies to imitate certain people over others, which are thought to facilitate efficient learning of self-relevant information. I’m advised by Dr. Mirella Dapretto and Dr. Marco Iacoboni.

Neural underpinnings of gender imitative biases

People preferentially imitate others of their own gender.  This imitative bias is thought to play an important role in gender role acquisition and gender identity formation.  I use fMRI to measure brain activity while people imitate actors of their own and another gender.  I also explore the relationship of this brain activity to gender identity strength.

Neural underpinnings of race imitative biases biases

Because race can indicate a person’s self-similarity or social status, race can influence whom people imitate.  People preferentially imitate own-race and high-status-race models during behaviors ranging from children’s choice of toys to adults choice of employment. I use fMRI to measure neural activity while people imitate others of different races, in order to gain insight into neural mechanisms that may underlie race-biased imitation.

Neural underpinnings of imitative biases related to social groups

Another type of social category that can heavily influence social exchanges such as imitation is the culturally created social group (e.g. political or religious affiliation). I use fMRI to measure neural differences between imitation of a culturally created ingroup and outgroup members, and explore whether these neural differences are similar to those associated with gender and race.

Previous Research

Down Syndrome

I previously worked on a project using fMRI to explore language impairment in individuals with Down Syndrome.  This research was conducted with Dr. Joseph Pinter and Dr. Susan Rivera at the University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

Language evolution

For my undergraduate honor’s thesis research I investigated hemispheric specialization for emotional and learned vocalizations in chimpanzees.  This work was done with Dr. William Hopkins at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center