Racial Bias May Be Hiding In Your BrainI think of myself as an extremely unprejudiced, unbiased person. I take pride in the fact that I accept and interact with everyone equally.

Or do I?

While I’m not explicitly racially biased, and thankfully studies confirm that this kind of racism is declining, neuroscience is showing that my brain is probably implicitly biased.

Yours probably is too.

It’s more common than you might think.

Implicit Versus Explicit Racial Bias

When we talk about racial bias, there are two kinds to consider. Explicit is a conscious, intentional belief that members of one race have qualities making them superior or inferior to other races. This is the old-fashioned racism evident throughout history. Many societies don’t tolerate this kind of racism anymore.

An implicit racial bias is more unconscious and not something a person is aware of. It’s wired into your brain and encouraged by your environment. Studies with three-month-old infants show that they have a distinct preference for viewing faces of their own race. Further research with six- to nine-month-old infants found them already demonstrating racial bias in favor of members of their own race and against others.

Dr. Naiqi Xiao, author of the papers on the infant studies and postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University said,

The results show that race-based bias already exists around the second half of a child’s first year… When we consider why someone has a racial bias, we often think of negative experiences he or she may have had with other-race individuals. But, these findings suggest that a race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals.” 

Your brain has many innate tendencies, of which you probably aren’t even aware, called cognitive biases that help to keep it feeling happy and safe. While these inclinations were originally built-in to help our species survive, they color your thoughts, aren’t necessary in today’s world, and can tilt your brain towards anxiety and depression.

Racial Bias May Be Hiding In Your Brain

How Implicit Bias Works

The PBS article, Making people aware of their implicit biases doesn’t usually change minds. But here’s what does work, explains it like this:

The best theory of how implicit bias works is that it shapes conscious thought, which in turn guides judgments and decisions. The ABC News correspondent Pierre Thomas expressed this very well recently by saying, ‘Black people feel like they are being treated as suspects first and citizens second.’ When a black person does something that is open to alternative interpretations, like reaching into a pocket or a car’s glove compartment, many people — not just police officers — may think first that it’s possibly dangerous. But that wouldn’t happen in viewing a white person do exactly the same action. The implications of conscious judgment being shaped in this way by an automatic, implicit process of which the perceiver is unaware can assume great importance in outcomes of interactions with police.”

Measuring Implicit Racial Bias with Neuroscience

Amygdala activation

In one study, a team of researchers from NYU and Yale quizzed an all-white group of study participants about their racial attitudes. As expected, they self-reported very low racial bias. However, their brains told a different story.

The researchers showed the subjects unfamiliar Black or White male faces while they were in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. The subjects thought it was a memory experiment. They were shown one face at a time and asked to determine if it was the same as the last one viewed. Afterward, the researchers looked at the MRI scans and compared brain activation for the Black and White faces.

Scientists specifically looked at the participants’ amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotion, threat detection, and the fear response. The researchers found that amygdala activity was higher when people were shown images of Black faces, and the level of participants’ amygdala activation correlated with their level of implicit bias against Black people. In other words, the more racially biased people were, the more their amygdala responded to Black faces.

This and other studies finding similar results have been interpreted to mean that Black faces, particularly males, are perceived by the brain as more threatening than White faces, reflecting culturally learned associations. Now, you can’t automatically equate amygdala activation with racial bias, but it’s an interesting correlation.

Racial Bias May Be Hiding In Your Brain
Brain regions where activity levels correlated with implicit bias against Blacks; left and right amygdala are the lower areas (Phelps et al, 2000).

Same-race empathy

In other research, Xiaojing Xu and his team in Beijing, China studied empathy. In your brain, being in pain and watching someone in pain activate similar networks. But it only happens if you feel empathetic towards that person.

The researchers filmed Chinese and Caucasian subjects either being touched on the cheek with a cotton bud or being pierced with a needle. Obviously, the latter scenario is painful. The videos were then shown to other Chinese and Caucasian test subjects. The researchers wanted to see if race influenced empathy.

It did. Both Chinese and Caucasian participants showed activation of pain-related brain areas when watching someone of their own race receiving the painful touch. Brain activation was strongly decreased when the person in the video was of the other race.

How to Reduce the Brain’s Implicit Racial Bias

The above evidence paints a pessimistic picture of racial bias being wired into our brains. However, thankfully because of neuroplasticity, our brains can change at any time in our lives. Science has proven that frequent contact with “other groups” improves attitudes and reduces racial bias. Many studies have shown the benefits of interacting with people from different races. The bottom line is that increased contact reduces prejudice.

In the 1950s, in his book The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport outlined the optimal conditions for interracial contact. They are:

  1. In the situation, the interacting groups have to have equal status;
  2. the groups have common goals (such as winning a sports event together);
  3. there is cooperation between the groups; and
  4. there is the support of authorities, law, or custom.

Mindfulness Practices Can Shift Racial Bias

Mindfulness practices can change your brain and have proven to be beneficial in reducing racial bias.

Visualization

It used to be believed that the adult brain was pretty much fixed and that things like racial prejudices were resistant to change. Because we now know that the brain is capable of change over a person’s lifespan, the idea of fixed beliefs is outdated. In fact, studies are exploring whether mindful practices can help change implicit racial bias.

In one study, the experimenters used mirrors and technology to induce various kinds of “body-swapping” illusions, giving White participants the sense that their bodies had a dark skin color. When they tested the people, researchers found that they had reduced racial bias after the illusion. Additionally, the more believable their experience of the body-swapping illusion, the more positive their implicit bias toward Black faces became. The authors propose:

This feeling of being a different person or a member of a different group allows us to understand that ‘we are more alike… than we are unalike,’ as Maya Angelou famously wrote.”

These results suggest that by viewing ourselves as similar to others, we may be able to shift our deeply held biases by visualizing ourselves literally “in another person’s skin.”

Racial Bias May Be Hiding In Your Brain

Loving Kindness Meditation and Compassion

A goal of some mindfulness practices, such as loving-kindness meditation and compassion practices, is learning to move beyond the stereotypical labels we put on others. But the usefulness of meditation in reducing bias may not be limited to just loving-kindness practices. One study found that people who engaged in ten minutes of mindfulness meditation showed significantly less discrimination.

These mindfulness practices encourage an understanding of our common humanity. Regardless of sex, race, age, or ethnicity, all beings want to be happy, safe, and free from pain and suffering.  At yoga, we finish every class with “May all beings everywhere be at peace.” I like that.

These practices need to be studied further to determine the potential long-term effects. We still don’t know if short-term interventions can change implicit bias in a lasting way. Given the decades and prevalence of reinforcement of negative stereotypes, it could be that when a person stops practicing, the old thinking patterns re-emerge.

Follow-Up Studies Reducing Racial Bias

Same-race empathy

Scientists conducted a subsequent study of the empathy and pain perception experiment detailed earlier. Again participants were shown videos of both Chinese and Caucasian subjects having painful or not painful experiences. This time, however, the researchers recruited participants who had spent a significant amount of time outside of China. For example, the subjects had grown up in the  UK, US, or Canada—countries where the majority of the population is Caucasian.

Interestingly, this test group did not show significant differences in brain activation between the races’ pain. This does not necessarily translate into real-life elimination of discrimination and racial bias. But it is promising.

Amygdala activation

There was also a second experiment conducted for the first study discussed above where the people were shown pictures of unfamiliar faces in an fMRI machine. This time, the subjects were shown faces of both black and white well-known figures, like Mahammed Ali, Denzel Wahington, John Kennedy, and Harrison Ford. The researchers did not detect the effects that had been observed with the unfamiliar faces. The subjects did not show any racial bias. This could mean that prior knowledge about the person reduces bias.

Change Is Possible

Any racial bias, even if it’s subtle and implicit, has serious repercussions. It affects the delivery of healthcare, hiring practices, court rulings, police behavior, and more. The current situation in our culture is distressing. However, the more we learn, the more we see that change is always possible. And it can happen one brain at a time. Only by changing ourselves do we change society. In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, “We must become the change we wish to see in the world.”

2 Comments

  1. Cathy Taughinbaugh Reply

    This is an interesting article, Debbie. There is much to think about in how we relate to each other. This line is very true, “The bottom line is that increased contact reduces prejudice.” The more we get to know and interact with people from different backgrounds, the more we realize how much we have in common.

  2. Wow what a fascinating article Debbie. I love the body swapping experiment – how amazing is that? And I’m left wondering what if a baby saw faces of all colors, would that make a difference in the imprinting of bias? Regardless of my curiosity in this regard I truly thought your article was an inspiration.

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