America vs. Japan: Brains and Comic/Manga Panels

Via the TCJ message board, Nathan has pointed to an article in the Boston Globe that discusses the differences in brain activation between “Eastern and Western” perceptual processing. The study claims that “Westerners tend to focus on central objects more than on their surroundings” while Easterners “tend to focus more on the context as well as the object.” From the article:

To use a camera analogy, “the Americans are more zoom and the East Asians are more panoramic,” said Dr. Denise Park of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas in Dallas. “The Easterner probably sees more, and the Westerner probably sees less, but in more detail.”

“Literally, our data suggest that people see different elements of pictures,” Park said. “If you’re looking at an elephant in the jungle, the Westerner will focus on the elephant and the Easterner is going to be more thinking about the jungle scene that has the elephant in it.”

In a way, these findings are supportive of McCloud’s claims that manga use more “wandering eye” type of panel “transitions.” The evidence from my own more formal study comparing panels from Japanese and American comics (in my paper Cross-Cultural Space) seems to support this conclusion… somewhat.

My study found that American comics by far used more comic panels that featured a whole scene (“Macros”), while Japanese manga used equal amounts of panels with whole scenes and individual characters (“Monos”). Manga also used a great deal more “Micro” panels, which feature a “zoom.”**

These results would seem to support a view that Japanese panels allow a focus on the broader environment, since they are breaking up the single environment into smaller parts. However those smaller parts are giving focus to the smaller parts instead of to the larger whole. So, in a way, manga panels are getting both the environment and the detail of the objects.

Unfortunately, my coding in this study was a little deficient, since at the time I lacked an “Amorphic” category that contains purely environmental information. These panels were coded as Micros at the time, but really should be their own category. On the plus side, I now have a larger and more diverse sample of comics to code and a richer coding scheme, I just need to get the peoplepower to do it (read: undergrad research assistants).

Update: An additional thought I just had related to this is the extant to which these claims are generalizable into two categories of East vs. West. At least regarding the graphic form, will we find that American books are the same/different as various European books? Can Japanese manga really be lumped in with Chinese, Korean, and other Asian comics’ structure? Perhaps we’ll find that there’s a lot more diversity out there than we suspect…

**(The graph above shows a reanalysis of these numbers, getting rid of two American books that had “high manga influence” — the difference is slight but significant. Check the paper for initial interpretation/numbers)


  • As the article says, this grows out of an older research program closely identified with Richard Nisbett, on East/West differences in cognition. According to Nisbett, East Asians are more “collectivist” and Westerners more “individualist” in their cognition, and this affects everything from selective perception and memory for figure/ground, attention to context, tolerance for ambiguity and contradiction, descriptions of persons, moral judgements, etc. etc. etc. One of the intriguing parts of this program is that the differences don’t seem to be entirely fixed–you can get Westerners to show more Eastern responses and vice versa, through subtle yet idiotically simple manipulations. IIRC, they got Westerners thinking more “collectively” by having them read a passage of text with lots of first-person pronouns. Maybe all those American kids in Naruto nation are more Eastern in their thinking?

    Ever since I first read Nisbett, I wondered whether these cognitive differences might explain an apparent cross-cultural difference in comics viz. that manga has at least seemed to many people to show much more of the characters’ background, compared with many Western comics. Think e.g. of how characters are often dwarfed by detailed, realistic backgrounds in Dragon Head, Akira, The Walking Man (or the well-known use of negative space in people like Hokusai).

    But maybe I just cherry picked those examples, and there really isn’t a general difference across cultures. Have you ever looked at this in your own work?

    Great blog BTW!

  • Thanks for the comments!

    I’m familiar with some of the East/West research, though it seems like its an over-generalization in a lot of ways. While I do think some of the claims may be well-founded, it’s dangerous to lump in all Asians (or “Westerners”) into a large homogenous group. Are there between-culture differences within those groups?

    All that I’ve seen between cultures in research is what’s in the papers “Cross-Cultural Space” or “Japanese Visual Language”. It’s definitely something I want to investigate more of.

    Along these lines, other great questions are things like:

    “Is there a general trend in the last twenty years for American comics to pattern more like manga, given their influence?”


    “Do OEL manga really pattern like actual manga, or do they more reflect American books with a ‘manga facelift’?”

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  • Neil,

    It seems to me that the more frequent occurrence of “zooms” in Manga would be entirely consistent with the the tendency of Manga readers to focus as much on environment as figure. If you’re creating work for a reader who perceives this way, and you want to get that reader to focus on a single figure, rather than the contextualized figure, then the obvious way to do that would be to leave the environment out entirely.

  • hey, i realize this is quite an old blog entry, so i hope my comment is still relevant.

    i’m an american who didn’t grow up reading comics such as x-men or spiderman, though i do enjoy some indie comics like daniel clowes or ariel schrag once in a while.

    a few years ago, though, i started to get into reading manga. once upon a time i remember thinking, why would anyone read comics that were almost totally in black and white? but now i read manga of some variety nearly every day.

    a little over a year ago, i was lucky enough to take a class on identity in comic books. we were divided into groups, and each week the groups would choose a comic by consensus and then present it to the class. one of the comics my group chose was an x-men comic.

    i was surprised that when i dutifully sat down to read the comic, i found it incredibly difficult. first of all, the full-color images had so much detail and so much going on in each panel that it was hard to focus on what was happening. total sensory overload. i literally had to squint at just the talk bubbles to be able to read them, yet the dialogue itself was difficult for me to interpret because it often bore little direct relation to what was happening in the images.

    i could almost say it hurt my brain to read that comic. subsequent times i’ve tried to read american comics in a similar style have been exactly the same. i think i can handle more indie-type comics because they’re often in black and white, or they’re drawn more simply with a monochromatic palette, such as with clowes’ ghost world.

    i know that when i read manga, my eye sweeps the entire page (sometimes even the whole spread, if it’s a double-page spread) fairly quickly, taking in text and image at almost the same time. text and image, including the “sound effects” are highly integrated, and seem to “move” the story along together. in this way, the visual language of manga seems to have far more “motion” than traditional american comics, which feel very static to me.

    on the other hand, when my non-manga reading/non-comic book reading friends look at my manga, they often have a difficult time interpreting the images. part of it has to do with the reading direction (right-to-left feels very unnatural when you first try it), but i think it’s also that they are so unfamiliar with the manga’s visual language that it’s hard for them to understand the images.

    i should also mention that i am a recently graduated photographer and graphic designer, so most of the dialogue i’ve had on the subject has been toward the visual rather than the linguistic.

  • Hi army kitten.
    I read your comment, and I was wondering whether you had any material/research on the differences in facial expressions/emotion representation between american (or western) comics and Manga?
    How do the cultural differences come to play in terms of graphically representing emotions on characters?
    I would appreciate it if you could reply to my mail –

    Thank you

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