What can Asian eyes teach WEIRD populations?

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED April 11, 2014
Getting beyond the WEIRD. (© Randy Faris/Corbis) Getting beyond the WEIRD. (© Randy Faris/Corbis)

Let’s talk about WEIRD populations.

No, I’m not talking about your everyday weirdo on the street. I’m talking about western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic (WEIRD) segments of the global population. The vast majority of our psychology and nonscientific understanding stems from the study of these populations., rather than the rest of the world.

It’s not that big of a deal if neurology is indeed universal across all ethnic demographics. Certainly, psychological issues become mired in cultural differences, but that’s software. Don’t we all have the same neurological hardware to run it on?

Not so, according to a new study from the University of Liverpool, published in the journal PLoS One.

Culture and Ethnicity
Dr. Paul Knox led the study examining rapid eye movements called saccades among groups of mainland Chinese, British Chinese and white British test subjects. They carried this out by strapping special headsets to the test subjects and having them react to peripheral lights on a plane white board.

Previously, scientists had theorized that eye movement patterns stem from where you live: your family, your friends, the sort of media you consume. In other words, high saccade numbers in Asian peoples were likely a cultural byproduct.

Knox’s study, however, found that Chinese ethnicity was more of a factor than culture. The mainland Chinese group scored high saccade numbers, as did their British Chinese counterparts, despite the many cultural differences between the two groups.

Meanwhile, the white British test subjects scored lower numbers, despite their cultural similarity to the British Chinese group. Here are the overall scores from the study:

Mainland Chinese: 27 percent high proportions of express saccades

British Chinese: 22 percent high proportions of express saccades

White British: 10 percent high proportions of express saccades

Of course, as Knox explains, these differences really spill over into East Asians in general — and ultimitly it all raises an important question about neurological research in general. With these results, he argues that “the human brain is not just amazingly complex in general, but also highly variable across the human population.”

So maybe we should study it as such, eh?

Want to learn more about the study from Knox himself? Here’s his YouTube presentation on the research:

Anecdotal: My son is ethnically Chinese and my wife and I have noticed many times how sharp his eyes seem to be, especially when noticing new details and distant airplanes. I’d previously chalked this up to the lamplight perception of the toddler brain (versus the myopic, flashlight beam of adult perception), but now I can’t help but wonder if saccades factor into the mix.


About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.

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