Washington: Think back to your last birthday party — what do you remember? The decorations, the people there or the cake?

Your culture may determine, in part, how you remember things and events, scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have found.

Researcher Angela Gutchess, assistant professor of psychology, Brandeis University, found Americans tend to focus on primary, visual details — the colour of the decorations or the type of icing on the cake while East Asians may better remember interpersonal details – who served the cake or whom they danced with.

“Your culture influences what you perceive to be important around you,” Gutchess said.

“If your culture values social interactions, you will remember those interactions better than a culture that values individual perceptions. Culture really shapes your memory,” Gutchess added.

The paper was coauthored by Peter Miller, a research assistant, and former students Sarah Serbun and Akash Vadalia.

Gutchess and her team performed a series of memory tests on 64 students from the US and East Asian countries, including China, Japan and Korea.

Both sets of students scored similarly on general memory tests but American students showed more specific object recall.

Gutchess showed both groups of students a series of images — a chair, a light, a desk. The next day, she showed them another series of objects in which some photographs were reprised from the previous series and some were just similar.

The American students were better able to identify the duplicated pictures than their East Asian counterparts.

In a second test, Gutchess explored whether the two cultural groups remembered more detailed scenes differently – an office, a kitchen, the savannah. Again, participants were shown two series of photos and asked to identify same and similar images.

Again, Americans scored higher on identifying duplicated scenes and objects.

“Previous studies had shown East Asians were better able to remember background and contextual details but this study showed that’s not always the case,” she said.

“This may be because East Asian memory is more focused on emotional context and social detail than visual detail,” she added.

Understanding how culture affects memory can improve interactions from diplomatic relations to classroom teaching styles, said Gutchess.

Rote memorisation may work for some cultures while a more context-based approach to learning may work better for others, Gutchess said.

The study was published in the journal Culture and Brain.

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