Can Brain Imaging Teach Us Anything about Racism?

What neuroscience can and cannot tell us about discrimination

Citation: Psychology Today (

Given the incomprehensible political scenario in which we find ourselves today, we must definitely examine all angles as we fight back against the increasingly vocal proponents of racial segregation and violence.

However, brain imaging may be a reach in this respect. Psychologists and psychiatrists disagree on whether brain imaging and other neuroscience techniques can help us better comprehend complicated human emotion and behavior. While some think that brain imaging is the closest we have ever gotten to knowing how the live human brain functions, others object to discrepancies in fMRI results and lament the replacement of voxels for the human mind.

In that setting, it is hazardous to claim that neurobiology may aid in not just comprehending certain elements of racial prejudice but also in devising strategies for overcoming it. Nonetheless, a recent assessment of research indicates that this is the case. As we face increasingly blatant manifestations of prejudice and unwavering adherence to extremist in-group sentiment, brain imaging and other neurobiological studies suggest a silver lining: prejudice is, at least in part, a learned phenomenon that can be reversed by appealing to the appropriate parts of the human brain.

At least four distinct brain areas seem to be implicated in the proclivity for group racial prejudice conformity: the amygdala, the insula, the ventral striatum, and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The amygdala is well-known for its role in emotional learning and fear memory acquisition. Consistent research indicates that when individuals are given images of out-group members’ faces, the amygdala is engaged. Surprisingly, this phenomena is more strong when the faces are new and have been seen many times, is less probable when the faces are shown too quickly for conscious register, and is changeable by the set of instructions provided to participants about how to think about the faces. These findings imply that evaluation influences the amygdala response.

In a well-known research, both Caucasian and African-American participants activated their front lobes more when presented black faces than white ones. The authors argue that their results indicate that this reaction is caused by cultural learning rather than inherent values. In other words, the dominant group teaches African-Americans to dread members of their own in-group.

Once a person joins a group and embraces its beliefs, it is famously difficult for her to alter her opinion due to the fear of social rejection. Imaging studies provide insight on the brain areas that get engaged while contemplating a hazardous stance. To replicate this kind of risk, scientists often employ simulated gambling experiments in which participants take on varying degrees of risk while their brain activity is monitored. Maintaining one’s hand is a safe or default position, while trading in one’s hand for another is more hazardous. Switching from the default choice activates the anterior insula, a region of the brain linked with negative emotions such as disgust and fear, in a simulated gambling research. [2] That is, leaving a safe location triggers danger signals from a primitive portion of the human brain.

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Categories: Clinical