Racism and the Brain: The Brain on Bigotry


On August 9, 2014, the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited long-standing racial tensions throughout the Midwestern city. A riot erupted at a candlelight vigil between the protesters calling for justice and the local police — resulting in over 155 arrests — including freelance journalists who came to cover the event — and the looting and vandalism of over 12 businesses near the site of the protest. Nine people have been injured in the ensuing violence.

Unfortunately, the conflict runs much deeper than any one event. As protests rage on, both in the streets and in the media, Americans continue to explore the incidents leading to Brown’s death — as well as other victims of police violence — and how our society is handling this crisis.

The history of America has been, from the beginning, painfully intertwined with racial prejudice. Our progress as a society has been marked by the great strides taken to overcome it, from Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation to the civil rights movement a century later, each bringing promise of a brighter tomorrow. Many of the darkest moments in American history, however, are the result of racial intolerance, violence, and misunderstanding.

From shootings of black citizens by white police officers, to racist comments by some of the biggest names in professional sports, all the way up to the highest levels of government, racial tensions have been brought back into the forefront of the news.

After so many years of sweat, blood, and tears in the name of racial equality, why are we surrounded by so much racial prejudice? Will we ever be truly free from its detrimental effects? Given that prejudice manifests as a deeply unconscious process in the brain, perhaps neuroscience can provide us with some fresh insight on the answer.

Take a look at the mainstream media and you’ll find that most overt displays of racial prejudice are widely condemned. “Explicit” racists — who openly espouse racist beliefs and actions — are less and less influential. In an interview, neuroscientist David Amodio, said:

If there’s one cornerstone finding when it comes to the psychological underpinnings of prejudice, it’s that out-and-out “explicit” racists are just one part of the story. Perhaps far more common are cases of so-called “implicit” prejudice, where people harbor subconscious biases, of which they may not even be aware, but that come out in controlled psychology experiments.

Researchers have been studying the brain to better understand what they define as “implicit prejudice” and how it works. In one study, subjects’ brains were monitored as they were alternately shown the faces of people belonging to different ethnicities. The researchers observed two separate responses in different areas of the brain.

The first response came from the amygdala — a pair of almond shaped clusters deep in the limbic system — which functions in processing memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. The second area was a combination of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). These two regions are associated with higher order functions like dealing with problems that involve human conflicts as well as our ability to control our raw emotional reactions.

The activation of these different regions was dependent on the length of time that subjects were exposed to faces of people belonging to a different race. If the images were flashed for a very short time (less than 30 milliseconds), only the amygdala and related regions were activated. When images were shown for a longer time (more than 525 milliseconds), activity in the amygdala stopped almost completely, and the ACC and DLPFC were activated.

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