Eastern and Western Thought Patterns

Geography of Thought Patterns

Based on his cognitive research and experiments with Westerners and Chinese, Korean, Japanese groups Richard E. Nisbett says he expects to see the following differences between contemporary East Asians and Westerners:

  • Patterns of attention and perception, with Easterners attending more to environments and Westerners attending more to objects, and Easterners being more likely to detect relationships among events than Westerners.
  • Basic assumptions about the composition of the world, with Easterners seeing substances where Westerners see objects.
  • Beliefs about controllability of the environment, with Westerners believing in controllability more than Easterners.
  • Tacit assumptions about stability vs. change, with Westerners seeing stability where Easterners see change.
  • Preferred patterns of explanation for events, with Westerners focusing on objects and Easterners casting a broader net to include the environment.
  • Habits of organizing the world, with Westerners preffering categories and Easterners being more likely to emphasize relationships.
  • Use of formal logical rules, with Westerners being more inclined to use logical rules to understand events than Easterners
  • Application of dialectical approaches, with Easterners being more inclined to seek the Middle Way when confronted with apparent contradiction and Westerners being more inclined to insist on the correctness of one belief vs. another.

Richard E. Nisbett also reminds us that

  • The ancient Chinese have excelled at algebra and arithmetic but not geometry, which was the strength of ancient Greeks.
  • Western infants learn nouns at a much more rapid rate than verbs. The Eastern infants learn verbs at a much more rapid rate than nouns.

My Observations

  • Geometry vs. algebra is the main theme in the East-West polarization of thought patterns. This is especially apparent in the world of physics which is dominated by Western thought patterns. There is a constant push towards building physics theories based on geometric concepts such as curvature. Einstein’s General Relativity theory is the best example but there are other examples in the String/M Theory. There are very few algebraic thinkers among the particle theorists. The “geometric algebra” is a new promising approach. There may be many applications of geometric algebra in physics and physics education.
  • Eastern thought emphasizes the “Word” the “Primordial Sound Waves”, “AUM”, mantra, sound symbols, acoustic roots, etc in spiritual practice. The Western thought emphasizes the “Divine Geometry”, and the visual symbols in spiritual practice.
  • The Western mystics explain their ecstatic experiences in terms of visions. The Eastern mystics mention the sounds and other non-visual aspects of their ecstatic experiences.
  • Eastern thought emphasizes the “time-domain signals” and the Western thought the “frequency domain”. In other words, the eastern mind thinks that everything is changing (time-domain signal) whereas the Western mind tries to extract a static picture of the phenomena (frequency-domain picture).
  • The sound is a “time-domain signal”. An image is a frequency-domain construct. Our minds seem to be converting the time-domain signals arriving through the nerves into spectra (frequency-domain pictures). I strongly suspect that in order to understand the “memory” in mammals we need to understand the frequency-domain aspects of the brain and ultimately citta.
  • Autistic children exhibit deficiencies in language development but they are extremely talented in visual processing. This is similar to the strengths and weaknesses of Eastern and Western thought patterns. Autistic children can learn individual words but they cannot form sentences. Autistic children have difficulty with syntax. This connection tells me that the origin of the differences in thought patterns is largely linguistic. Language plays a big role in shaping the thought patterns.
  • It is true that mathematicians and physicists can think in terms of visual symbols and language is not needed for their mental function. We can argue, however, that the mathematical syntax is needed. The point I am making is this. The origins of the differences in Eastern and Western thought patterns can be traced to the differences in the syntax of the Eastern and Western languages.
  • Note that the observed differences in thought patterns are more pronounced between the Chinese and the Westerners or between the Japanese and the Westerners. This gives more support to my claim that the differences in thought patterns have been shaped by the differences in syntax. Chinese or Japanese syntax is completely different from the syntax of Indo-European languages.
  • Which was the root cause, language or environment? Obviously environment and genetics played a major role in the differentiation of thought patterns in the last 40000 years but once the syntax differences emerged the language reinforced the differences.
  • Structural changes in thought patterns persist for thousands of years because of the syntax.


[1] Richard E. Nisbett, “Geography of Thought”, Free Press (2003),  ISBN 0-7432-5535-6

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About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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