The neuroscience of race
Racism is an ugly word, and an ugly driver of behaviour. Unfortunately, the ever worsening refugee crisis as more people flee dire conditions in their home countries for better lives in affluent nations like Australia means racial prejudice is likely to intensify. The worst of it is that many people who feel superior because of their skin colour believe their views to be backed by science, that we’re actually hardwired to prefer our own.
In fact, this isn’t the case at all. In a recent radio interview to discuss her team’s latest research findings, psychologist Elizabeth Phelps of New York University explains that “race preferences” are not innate but due to cultural and social learning.
What Phelps and her colleagues did was review existing studies that have used magnetic resonance imaging to show those regions of the brain implicated in the perception of racism and ethnicity. Turns out the network of regions involved are centred on the amygdala, a region that also overlaps with circuits linked to threat detection and emotion regulation.
In 2000, in the very first study to connect race preference to brain activity, Phelps describes seeing “individuals – white Americans – with greater amygdala activity when they viewed a black face versus a white face, that correlated to how much they showed … unintentional evidence of race preference.”
Evidence such as the eye-blink startle, a reflex response that is enhanced when people are anxious or in the presence of something they think is negative.
“This was unrelated to what they told us their race attitudes were,” she says.
“Most Americans will say they’re not biased in the least. Yet on more subtle measures, we can find evidence that they show some preference for their own race and against the other race.”
That this reflects cultural and social learning of race attitudes and stereotypes as opposed to anything inherent is demonstrated in the considerable variety that’s seen across groups in their perceptions of race. As Phelps explains, there’s no amygdala activity in white Americans shown pictures of black people they know and like. And in the unconscious preferences of black Americans towards their own and other races, there’s a much wider variation of brain responses.
Given what is clearly the vital role culture plays in producing racial bias, this research is ultimately about neuroplasticity, a word anyone who’s attended any of our conferences – Happiness & Its Causes, Mind & Its Potential and Young Minds – has heard many times. Indeed as Phelps notes optimistically, “negative evaluations of outgroup members” can most definitely be unlearned.