The topic of race is one of fierce debate; never far from our minds and commonly discussed both in the media and down the pub. Britain is one of the most diverse and multicultural countries on the planet but the development of this multiculturalism has grown from a torrid past and race relations continue to dominate the national psyche. The ever-growing diversity of our country means that race relations are becoming more and more crucial to many socio-political advances. Indeed a number of intergroup interactions come to the forefront every year, with prominent events from this year including the allegations of racial abuse against former England football captain John Terry. Understanding what defines our prejudices and creates these racial tensions is an aspect of race relations which does not receive widespread media coverage, despite its potentially major implications for society – so what is currently known about the neuroscience of race?
Most of the early work on race relations came from the field of social psychology. Henri Tajfel and John Turner were early pioneers of ‘social identity theory’ – a theory which explores people beliefs and prejudices based on their membership and status within different social groups. Their work at the University of Bristol (UK) in the 1970s described the phenomena of ingroups and outgroups. They assigned volunteers to one of two groups based on relatively superficial preferences, i.e. individuals may have been assigned to a certain group due to their appreciation of a certain style of art. Individuals within these groups were then asked to rate their preference for other volunteers either within their own group (ingroup) or in another group (outgroup). Tajfel and Turner consistently found a prejudice towards the outgroup individuals and a preference for ones ingroup. This research suggests that we have an innate mechanism of preference towards those who we perceive to be similar to ourselves over those who are ‘different’ – no matter how insignificant or trivial that difference may be.
Interestingly this inbuilt prejudice can be masked, as is often the case in similar studies using different racial groups. However, recent neuroscience research suggests that prejudices may still exist despite the conscious effort to hide them.
Research by Elizabeth Phelps and colleagues at New York University (US) believe they have uncovered one of the brain pathway involved in determining reactions to faces of different race. This research provides some intriguing insights into our views of different racial groups. Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), Phelps and her team have discovered a network of interconnected brain regions that are more active in the brain of white participants in response to a picture of a black face than to a white face.
This circuit includes the fusiform gyrus, amygdala, ACC (anterior cingulated cortex) and the DLPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). Activity in the fusiform gyrus is not surprising, since this region has been linked to processing of colour information and facial recognition. Intuitively, this region should play a simple role in the initial recognition of a black face. The next region in this circuit is the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for processing/regulation of emotion and it is here where the circuit becomes more intriguing. A simple explanation of amygdala involvement could be that black faces evoke more emotion in white participants than white faces. Further along the circuit the roles become more complex as we move into the higher areas of the brain. The ACC and the DLPFC are regions that have both been linked to higher order processes. The ACC is commonly reported to be active in tasks that involve conflict. This region is commonly activated in tests such as the ‘stroop test': this involves naming the font colour of written words which either agree (BLUE) or disagree (BLUE). In this case, the ACC is active during the second conflicting task. The DLPFC is one of the most sophisticated areas of the human brain, responsible for social judgement and other such complex mental processes.
A study conducted by Mahzarin Banaji and a team from Yale and Harvard Universities in the USA may explain why activity is seen in areas involved in conflict resolution and social judgement when viewing ‘outgroup’ faces. This research showed that activation of these pathways was time dependent. When images of ‘outgroup’ faces were flashed for a very short time (30 milliseconds) significant activation was seen in the fusiform gyrus and amygdala but none was observed in the ACC or DLPFC. However, when these images were shown for a longer period of time (525 milliseconds) activity in the amygdala was virtually abolished, replaced by strong activity in the ACC and DLPFC. This research yields vital insight into the role of the ACC and DLPFC and the possible presence of inbuilt prejudice. One interpretation of these findings is that after a short presentation, the ‘raw’ inbuilt activity is strong, showing unintentional emotive activity to ‘outgroup’ faces, while after the longer exposure time this activity is abolished by the influence of the ACC and the DLPFC, which provide a more rational regulation of this response.
This suggests that a member of today’s society knows consciously that racial prejudice is wrong and so activity in the DLPFC could represent a conscious decision to be unbiased. The ACC activity may represent conflict between this conscious DLPFC process and the subconscious emotion seen in the amygdala activity. Obviously, a mere increase in amygdala activity does not necessarily signify negative emotion. Therefore this automatic activity may not represent inbuilt racism, instead it may simply reflect heightened awareness and deeper thought when assessing faces from another racial group. However, one thing it does highlight is the obvious differences in the processing of ‘outgroup’ faces.
This research could have serious implications for our understanding of inter-race relations. Therefore, although this activity is subconscious and unlikely to be linked with conscious racial discrimination, it may still play a key role in influencing how we go about our daily lives – choosing jobs, places to live, friends and so on. However, since our brains are malleable, racial prejudice such as this can be lessened, a prime example being through inter-racial friendships and marriages. It is possible that this ingroup vs. outgroup association of race will diminish more and more as our education and upbringing continues to become more multicultural. But for now, easing these racial divides may take a lot of thought.
Guest Blog by: Oliver Freeman @ojfreeman
References (only accessible with subscription):
- Kubota et al. The Neuroscience of Race. Nature Neuroscience
- Cunningham et al. Separable Neural Components in the Processing of Black and White Faces. Psychological Science
Learn a little more about Oliver:
My research looks into the effects of diabetes on the nervous system. Diabetes is nearly 4 times as common as all types of cancer combined and around half of those with diabetes have nerve damage. Most people are not aware of this very common condition and I am trying to increase awareness of the disorder and understand what causes diabetic patients to feel increased pain and numbness/tingling in their hands/feet.