Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Racist Brain?

Is the human brain... a racist?


There are some worrying indications that it could be. After all, the cerebrum is largely composed of so-called "white" matter, and the only black area is a little 'ghetto' at the bottom called, shockingly, the substantia nigra...!

Seriously though. There's a paper just out in Nature Neuroscience from Kubota et al that looks at The Neuroscience Of Race. It's a fine review as far as it goes, but to me at least, it really shows up the limits of contemporary neuroscience.

We are told that
A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.
So there have been studies investigating which bits of American's brains activate in response to looking at photos of black people vs. white people. It emerges that "a network of interacting brain regions" light up. But so what?

Sure, the brain reacts differently to seeing people of different races. Of course it does - it reacts differently to everything, so long as we can perceive a difference; that's how we perceive a difference. And of course race, a deeply emotive issue in American politics and culture, activates 'emotional' parts of the brain - that's how it's emotive.


The included studies all scanned Americans and (presumably) mostly college students. Now most American college students are not active racists, and indeed I'd imagine that their emotional brains are more likely to be worrying self-referentially about racism than about the actual race of the stimuli. No-one seems to have scanned card-carrying members of the KKK. Furthermore, "race" in these studies almost always means "blackness". What about Latinos, Asians?

So what have we learned?

I don't think we've learned much about race. "Race" after all is a confused mixture of emotions, attitudes and beliefs. These differ greatly from person to person, and even the same individual may experience conflicting feelings in different contexts. Kubota et al note this and say that it may explain the mixed findings (black faces activate the amygdala more than white in some studies, not in others) but I'd have said that in this case, only inconsistent results are credible.

What does it tell us about the brain? I'd say not much. The authors weave a neat little narrative - in response to seeing black faces, the amygdala and other emotional areas activate as a negative emotional response; the ACC then detects this racist response and sees that it's unacceptable, and the DLPFC then suppresses it like a parent hurriedly interrupting a young child who's making a faux pas.

But all the elements of this story - the automatic, emotional amygdala, the supervisory DLPFC - are borrowed from other neuroscience studies so at best the race literature confirms these theories but it doesn't even really do that, because there are many other possible interpretations.

I'd say that we need to know much more in terms of the 'basic' neuroscience of emotion, attitudes and beliefs because we can tackle the hornet's nest of race in the brain.

ResearchBlogging.orgKubota JT, Banaji MR, and Phelps EA (2012). The neuroscience of race. Nature neuroscience, 15 (7), 940-8 PMID: 22735516

11 comments:

Nitpicker said...

Haven't read it but skimmed through it. It does sound like a prime example of reverse inference. Not that reverse inference is necessarily wrong; it can be a great tool. But as you describe this doesn't seem to have really increased our understanding of anything really.

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Neuroskeptic said...

Right. The problem with reverse inference is that even if it's true, it doesn't really add much, it just confirms that the assumptions that you're using for your reverse inference are true.

But you already knew that, or at least you already assumed that, otherwise you couldn't have done any reverse inference.

petrossa said...

Logically our brain is at least xenophobic. It's one of the most important survival mechanisms. To assume it would be anything else is laughable.

Racism is an abstract human concept, as such not something the brain has much interest in.

It's merely the projection of the natural xenophobia translated into symbols.

Anyway it's much easier to trigger the 'xenophobic module' if the other doesn't look at all like what you are used to.

But if it sounds more intelligent to put it a paper with some jargon.... Another paper published, another mark on your gun.

egtheory said...

I agree with @petrossa in some ways. The evolutionary game theory accounts of ethnocentrism suggest that it is prevalent in much simpler animals than humans (under some interpretation: ones without nervous systems, even) so whatever brain processes are responsible for the basics of this should be very old (in an evolutionary setting) and simple. For now, it seems that the researchers are only finding very broad strokes of everything related to the phenomena and not finding the source.

Willibrord said...

Lest we forget one of my personal favourites, the periacqueductal grey ... it's not all black and white in there!

omg said...

Could be a survival reaction to a novel feature like skin color. Extending that to racism seems inappropriate and unscientific. Congolese Albinos in Congolese societies are treated differently because they're white even though they're Congolese. I have this unpublished UN report about Congolese Albinos enduring horrendous abuse by the very society they were raised in. Racism is concisely defined and investigated in socio-political settings. To consider this to be a trait in the brain seems like something evolutionary folks could investigate and at least have markers, regions of interest before neurodunders randomly scan for chocolate or vanilla shake lovers.

StokesBlog said...

Forget the shades of grey, what about the more vibrant Red Nucleus!? A little something for everyone, at least in midbrain...
Otherwise, really interesting post!

fmbandit said...

Saying that it's "laughable" to assume anything but one's retroactive assumptions about past evolutionary influences is nothing short of dogmatic.

I'm not saying you're incorrect, I'm saying your reasoning is non-scientific. It's no different from me saying "logically, the brain is a reptile who hates black guys."

When I hear from people drunk on false certainty with regards to their best Cartesian guesses at evolutionary biology, it makes me think that perhaps humans just favor dogmatic thinking. The new breed of "rationalist free-thinkers" seem oddly similar to the fundamentalists they often mock; embrace uncertainty, or it's not really science at all.

You can tell this sort of thing is coming when someone starts their sentence with "logically," as though perusing Wikipedia's list of logical fallacies is a substitute for a sound argument.

Petrossa: Where is your evidence for a "xenophobic module"? Without evidence, it's just another untested assumption--like the one that precedes it with regards to xenophobia being a favorable trait. Unfortunately, with the state of the art today, you're an fMRI machine away from a solid career with either of those.

INTPblogger said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with people just throwing ideas around, without having to come up with the facts to prove their point of view. This will come in time as we understand more about how the mind functions.

However, I do think that language has given humans the ability to label things and perhaps make concepts more complicated than they really are. The mind doesn't consider itself "racist", it looks at people and interacts with people and comes to the conclusion that either these people are "more similar" or "more different" than you and, even if we don't always consciously realize it, will favor interactions and bonding with people that it determines are "more similar" both in how they look and how they think (more genetically-similar). Maybe we should all look at our most preferred interpersonal relationships (both present and past) or how children form close friendships (before they are socially biased) to see if we have an innate "racial" bias. I think even historical and present events around the world suggest that we in fact do.

In my observations of myself and others I do think that the mind's instinct is to devalue (either make fun of or reduce interaction with) people we think are different from us (in regards to looks, ideas, values, beliefs). However, in the presence of other people, we consciously inhibit these initial instincts (because we have been taught at a young age that this is a social faux-pas). I'm pretty sure no one wants to admit that this is true though.

Anyway, that's just what I think (please don't ask me for proof).

ouafae said...

I’m not surprised that society asks questions like these, or even throw the idea out there. its amazing what the brain can do, but I don’t think that it can discriminate between cultures and colors, that’s all in the persons personality and behavior like you said, that brain might indicate some movements to different color, but like you said again that’s what the brain is spouse to do, react but it’s not a positive or a negative way.

cjhall said...

its crazy to even think that the brain is racist!!! these test that are trying to prove this, are done on adults that are grown. The amygdala is the part of the brain that people associate racism with because it control memory and emotion, especially fear and anger. But emotions are learned!!! Learned as a function of being a part of society. You are conditioned and society is the racist. You cant help what you think, its the (behavior) acting on it, that's the problem.