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Neuroscience: What the Brain Can Tell Us About Human Bias

At every turn, there is another headline story amplifying a social issue. In order to be informed consumers of media, it’s essential to understand the science of unconscious brain processes that can lead to in and out-group thinking (put simply, “us” vs. “them” thinking) which can lead to increased divisiveness, with negative impacts on personal and community mental health and well-being. 

Many people are searching for concrete answers in response to the current racial climate. The reality is that the cause is multifaceted. Turning to brain science provides insights on one factor, how our brains are wired to highlight an “us vs. them” mentality, stemming from our distant evolutionary past. 

Here are just a few insights about brain regions that contribute to this phenomenon: 

  • The human brain’s medial prefrontal cortex is highly active when we think about our personal attributes and those we choose to identify, creating a positive bias towards those we associate with. Hence the out-group is formed. However, these categorizations become arbitrary as humans often identify with overlapping social spheres.
  • Studies involving the inferior parietal lobe, which plays a role in perception and action, show increased brain activity during an in-group member’s performance of arbitrary action. This finding demonstrates that in-group performances are judged more favorably, and in-group bias occurs at the beginning of our judgment process of others.
  • Activity in the anterior cingulate cortex is associated with increased empathy, occurring at similar levels during first-person pain experiences and when we feel empathy towards individuals from ethnic and social groups, we identify with. This phenomenon may partially explain racist tendencies and decreased inhibitory responses to harming individuals from an out-group.
  • The amygdala plays a vital role in the processing of more negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and aggression. For example, studies on fMRI show that immediate human subconscious reactions cause us to experience increased amygdala activation when shown images of faces of ethnicities differing from our own. However, conscious processing from our frontal lobe allows us to regulate our emotional response based on what is acceptable in society when given more time to examine images of faces. 

Evolutionary psychology shows us that brain structures evolved so that subconscious processing networks could provide quick identification information that was crucial for survival. Likewise, improving today’s society requires more effortful emotion regulation and conscious processing to strengthen cognitive control against racist and discriminatory behavior. Here are a few steps to get started: 

Cognitive control allows individuals to regulate their thoughts and actions in accordance with societal norms and personal values, especially when confronted with biases. Here are some tips to enhance cognitive control against such behaviors:

  1. Self-awareness: Reflect on your own beliefs and behaviors regularly. Acknowledge and confront any biases you may harbor, even if they are uncomfortable to face.
  2. Educate Yourself: Engage with books, documentaries, and articles that address racism and discrimination. This helps in understanding the roots and consequences of biases and can reshape your perspective.
  3. Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices enhance self-regulation, allowing individuals to pause and think before acting on impulsive or prejudiced thoughts. They can also help in recognizing and detaching from harmful thought patterns.
  4. Exposure to Diversity: Actively seek interactions with people from varied backgrounds. Personal relationships can dispel stereotypes and reduce biases more effectively than abstract knowledge.
  5. Practice Empathy: Try to understand experiences and emotions of others. Perspective-taking exercises, where you imagine life from another person’s viewpoint, can be beneficial.
  6. Counter-stereotypic Imagery: Expose yourself to images and stories that contradict common stereotypes. This can help in challenging and changing ingrained biases.
  7. Seek Feedback: Engage in open conversations with trusted friends or colleagues about your behavior. Sometimes, an external perspective can highlight biases we might not see in ourselves.
  8. Set Personal Standards: Commit to an explicit personal standard that opposes racism and discrimination. This can act as a guidepost when faced with challenging situations.

Bias, whether internalized or experienced externally, can have profound implications for mental well-being. Experiencing discrimination or prejudice due to inherent biases in society can lead to feelings of alienation, stress, and low self-esteem. Victims often grapple with identity conflicts, increased anxiety, and even depressive symptoms as they navigate environments that may invalidate or stereotype their lived experiences. On the other hand, individuals who harbor unchecked biases may find themselves in constant conflict with diverse communities, leading to social isolation and cognitive dissonance. In both scenarios, bias undermines emotional equilibrium and disrupts the harmony of interpersonal relationships, compromising overall mental health.

It can be hard to fight our strongest muscle 🧠 but like many things, with effort and intention, we can create better relationships and community.

 

 

 

Diversus Health is a mental and behavioral healthcare organization that has been serving the Pikes Peak and tri-county area for over 145 years. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, request an appointment with one of our professional mental health providers at Diversus Health today. If you need immediate assistance, call our crisis hotline at 844-493-8255, or text ‘TALK’ to 38255.

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