This is the third in a series of four articles that will explore racism from the perspectives of genetics, evolution, biology, and psychology.

It’s the summer of 1966—the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaims: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” These are powerful words. But in 2017, many people would say that King’s dream still hasn’t been achieved. Is the dream possible, or is it out of reach? Science can help answer the question.

Not all comments and actions perceived as racist are intentionally racist or come from a place of hate. In previous articles on evolution and genetics, I talked about the problem of implicit racial biases. That is to say that a person can act in a racist way or make racist comments without consciously meaning to.

But people don’t have to act according to their implicit racial biases. In fact, your brain contains the machinery necessary to correct them. Are you willing to put in the effort?

The amygdala

The brain is an extremely complex organ. It’s in charge of your thoughts, feelings and actions. You can control some of these things, but a lot happens subconsciously. One part of the brain that you can’t consciously control is the amygdala. It triggers specific emotions necessary for survival, like fear.

Humans aren’t born fearing people from other races. But your amygdala and related neural pathways learn to associate people with categories or labels. For example, one pathway helps you learn which stimuli are dangerous. It might lead you to perceive people from a different ethnicity as threatening. To complicate things even more, your amygdala is an instinctual brain region. It forms these biases faster than you have time to consciously think about them. In other words, your brain can form racial biases without you even knowing it!

Categories and coalitions

Scientists who study the amygdala have found some interesting results. Sometimes, the amygdala becomes active when a person sees the face of someone from a different ethnicity. Does this mean the person is racist? Not necessarily.

Your brain classifies people into social categories. It ranks the importance of these categories based on whether or not they allow you to form strong social coalitions or alliances with others. So when you look at a person from a different ethnicity, your amygdala will only become active if race is the social category your brain thinks is most important for determining coalition membership.

Researchers have studied how this works using a series of two experiments. In the first experiment, participants looked at pictures of people from various races. All the people in the pictures were wearing the same jersey. In this case, the participants did use race as a social category to group the people in the pictures.

In the second experiment, participants again looked at pictures of people from various races. But this time, the people in the pictures were wearing either a grey or a yellow jersey. This time, the participants used jersey colour instead of race to group the people in the pictures! Their brains interpreted jersey colour as a stronger indicator of coalition membership than race.

The take-away from these experiments? Race is just one of many social cues humans use to categorize people into social coalitions.

Did you know? Your brain uses around 20% of your body’s energy supply.

Changing your biases

This research suggests that people can indeed overcome racism! But it takes some conscious thought. In other words, people have to choose to reject race-related biases. They can do this using either internal or external motivation. If social pressure makes you reject thoughts based on stereotypes, that’s external motivation. If you decide on your own to reject these thoughts, that’s internal motivation.

Many different brain regions are involved in conscious thought. But internal motivation mainly involves the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the human brain. The cerebral cortex is kind of like your brain’s operations centre. It regulates a lot of important bodily functions, like seeing and moving your limbs. It’s also involved in evaluating and correcting prejudices and stereotypes.

This means that your brain is equipped to let you consciously correct your implicit biases. You have to be willing to put in some effort, but it’s by no means an impossible task! For example, in fall 2016, students attended a campus costume party dressed as people from various countries. Some of these costumes reinforced negative stereotypes about certain cultures. For instance, some of the students dressed up as Mexican prisoners, wearing orange jumpsuits and sombreros.

Maybe the students didn’t set out to hurt anyone. Maybe their costume choices reflected implicit biases, not conscious ones. But thanks to their cerebral cortexes, they didn’t need to act on their implicit biases. They could have taken the time to reflect on what they were doing. They could have recognized how demeaning their costumes were to others. And they could have chosen to wear something else for Halloween.

* * *

Together with my previous articles on evolution and genetics, this one on biology helps show how science can help give a better understanding of racism and how to deal with it. But an important piece of the puzzle is still missing: a final article will focus on the psychology of racism.

Learn more!

About the brain:

Can states of consciousness be mapped in the brain?
B. Dubuc, The Brain From Top to Bottom

The Amygdala and Its Allies
B. Dubuc, The Brain From Top to Bottom

The remarkable, yet not extraordinary, human brain as a scaled-up primate brain and its associated cost (2012)
S. Herculano-Houzel, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109

About the Brain and Prejudice:

A review of neuroimaging studies of race-related prejudice: does amygdala response reflect threat? (2014)
A.M. Chekroud, J.A.C. Everett, H. Bridge and M. Hewstone, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8

The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping (2014)
D.M. Amodio, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 15
Link to abstract. Subscription needed to view full article.

The neuroscience of race. Nature Neuroscience (2012)
J.T. Kubota, M.R. Banaji and E.A. Phelps, Nature Neuroscience 15

Marissa Lithopoulos

I was born and raised in Ottawa and am a proud University of Ottawa student. I completed my undergraduate studies with an Honours degree in Biomedical Science and a Minor in Philosophy. I am now a PhD Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. I enjoy travelling, rhythmic gymnastics, and playing the guitar. I joined Let’s Talk Science as an outreach volunteer in 2014 and have absolutely loved it! I think science is wonderful because it allows us to ask (and sometimes answer) deep questions about our universe.

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