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. As protests rage on, both in real life and in the realm of bloggers, the media continues to explore the incidents leading to Brown’s death and how the state of Missouri is handling the crisis. Unfortunately, the conflict runs much deeper than any one of these isolated events.

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.

So there are two responses, dependent upon the individual’s conscious feelings and beliefs: a quick one from the amygdala, which induces fear or strong emotional reactions, and a slower response from the ACC and DLPFC, which exerts a more learned response. The presence of strong fear related emotional responses in individuals who outwardly show no prejudiced attitudes is known as “implicit bias.” Stanford University’s Recruitment to Expand Diversity and Excellence program suggested that about 75 percent of whites and Asians demonstrated an implicit bias favoring whites over blacks. In short, people who don’t seem racist can still harbor an implicit bias.

Education and activism have undoubtedly changed our society’s attitudes towards race. It is no longer commonly acceptable to use racial slurs or to act in ways that demonstrate racial prejudice. The widely observed activity in the brain’s ACC and DLPFC to inhibit our subconscious prejudices supports this notion. Yet many people wonder rightly about the less measurable effects of their own implicit biases and the powerful influence these might have on our society. Is it enough to hide our biases from view or should we go deeper? What more could we do to make the world a better place?

If reading this makes you worry, bear in mind that what we think and feel consciously is not always the same as what our brains experience at a subconscious level. Secondly, none of these impulses — be they conscious or unconscious — represent the sum of who we are. Some of these judgments may be at least partly based on what we learned as children, perhaps from adults who raised us or peers we grew up with. Some of them may have been learned through conscious study and exposure — the environment in which we lived while growing up and our own experiences. More shockingly, some of that information may originate from beyond this lifetime — embedded in the deep, unconscious evolutionary memories of the brain. Regardless of where this information originates, it is still up to us as conscious individuals to choose whether or not it serves society for the better.

No longer do justifications like “I just feel that way” end the debate. Even those of us who seek to break away from the traditional prejudices of history are often influenced, implicitly, by those same prejudices. Now, more than ever, selfawareness is essential. The ability to say “yes, I have preconceptions and biases, but they do not define me” is far more useful than stubborn insistence that says “the way I feel is simply who I am, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

But how could we possibly break free from our implicit biases, from the thoughts and feelings that seem so essential to our character as individuals? Do we need to be hypervigilant in order to catch any and all implicit biases before we take action? That is a daunting prospect, and in the long run, unsustainable.

Rather than increasing the attention we give to the fear and emotion created by our implicit biases, what if we could focus on something bright, hopeful, and empowering? What if by focusing on something that is unquestionably good and worthwhile, we could choose actions that create new information, even in the deepest parts of our brains? Many great teachers and philosophers have put forth principles for how they sought to live their lives. These principles seek to define the things in life that contain absolute value, beyond our thinking and emotion.

A respect for living beings, regardless of their skin color, character, or cultural background, is one such absolute value. By holding life, particularly human life, as an absolute value, we have a standard against which to make our choices, independent from any thoughts and emotions that arise from implicit biases. We simply do our best to manifest this absolute value of respect, and in so doing we stretch and strengthen ourselves for that purpose. By repeatedly making this choice, we start to build new habits — the only way to truly change the information in deeper parts of our brain like the amygdale.

One day, when society across the globe has so deeply ingrained the principles of respect and compassion for all people that it overcomes the evolutionary survival instinct of our species, we might truly be able to say that we are born free from any form of cognitive bias. In the meantime, it is up to each one of us to do the hard work of building experiences and memories according to positive, absolute values. We owe that much to the generations that will follow in our path. It is only by doing so that we can truly honor and respect those who look different from us. But more than that, we can honor and respect our true selves, the part of ourselves that exists beyond our skin color, beyond our names and histories, beyond nationalities and regions. And if we do that, we will have changed the future of life on earth.

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