Prof. Dr. Kemal Arıkan

An Analysis of Racist Brains

Irkçı Beynin Analizi

Today, we are witnessing that neuroscience is being associated with all kinds of concepts. Any theme, any title and any concept, which makes it possible to form a bond with the functioning of the brain, can be associated with neuroscience. Even though racism and neuroscience seem to be quite irrelevant, the advancing technology and neuroimaging systems show that this judgment is not accurate that much.

What does a “racist brain” tell us?

For over 50 years, social psychologists have been endeavoring to understand the origins of prejudice, racial prejudice included, in all its aspects. For these long years, philosophers and other researchers conducting studies on racism have had the general tendency to ignore the arguments set forth by the psychology community, claiming that they are “insufficient and individual-based”. Nevertheless, upon the developments in neuroscience and in the instruments used in the field of neuroscience, “racism” has recently become a topic, which is being discussed and debated regarding personality structures and cerebral functions, besides being a subject matter that draws attention based on social and historical reasons. In parallel with these advancements, social psychologists have focused their attention on the implicit aspects of racial cognition. Having the opportunity to utilize neuroscience, social psychologists have put the emphasis on the phenomenon named “the own-race advantage”.

The assessment and analysis of what kind of responses the racially-biased behaviors have in the brain are seemingly useful in understanding how this biased attitude occurs and how to diminish the potential of this bias. Right at this point, neuroscience helps us “understand whether an individual has racial prejudices”. In a study, in which “implicit bias tasks” are analyzed, the participants of the experiment are asked to classify the words appearing on the computer screen as positive and negative. In quite a short period of time before the words appear on the screen, the face pictures of people with black or white skin color flash on the screen. In this study, it is observed that the participants are faster in classifying negative words if the face that flashes before the word appears is black and in classifying positive words if that person’s skin color is white. Additionally, based on these findings, it is estimated that people with white skin color and Asians have a racial bias rate of over 75% in the processes of data processing and understanding the social world. Nevertheless, whether these “implicit” approaches lead to racial attitudes and behaviors seems to be a product of the interaction between brain regions that are more intricate than what’s being mentioned.

What are these neural networks that underlie racism?

As a component of the limbic system in our brain, “amygdala” takes part in controlling our emotions, perception of threats, fears, excitement and in learning processes, in addition to the role it plays in the way the autonomous functions work. Brain imaging studies demonstrate that amygdala gives a more intense electrical response to faces with black skin color or those belonging to different races in individuals who exhibit “implicit bias”. Amygdala gives a similar reaction when the person feels threatened, anxious or distressed. Fortunately, the brain region named “prefrontal cortex”, which is in charge of administrative and executive tasks, provides help against an intense amygdala reaction in people whose brains “function healthily”. This brain region assists with rationally evaluating the triggering of fear and anxiety and with soothing this system that functions automatically. Similarly, the brain provides a cognitive control by suppressing inappropriate behaviors and biases through brain regions, such as “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex” and “anterior cingulate cortex”.

Apparently, while people with a healthily-functioning brain are able to control their biases, it is not possible to eliminate the fluctuations of fear and biases for those whose brain does not function healthily. Negative attitudes and behaviors are formed in individuals as a result of the deprivation that occurs in these cognitive mechanisms providing control. For instance, in a study, it was observed that an impaired prefrontal lobe function and religious fundamentalism were correlated. It has also been set forth by studies that patients with methamphetamine and alcohol addictions suffer from damages in similar brain regions and from problems in regulating their emotions. Nevertheless, other studies show us that discrimination can stem from indirect prejudices, which therefore can cause well-intentioned people to discriminate either unknowingly or to avoid making mistakes. The previous studies and the correlation revealed are not sufficient in order for us to understand the entire causality; however, they help us in analyzing racism, which is a social problem.

One of the most remarkable functions of our brain is “plasticity”, the ability to compensate for or repair the losses occurring in the functions. The brain is an organ that can reorganize or regulate itself. Our implicit biases and our strict beliefs, an active amygdala and a passive prefrontal cortex can create new synaptic connections, enabling us to be open to new information and experiences, thanks to this plasticity.

We can control our impulses and reconstruct our brain by doing cognitive exercises with the aim of increasing our level of awareness. We can reconstruct ourselves.

– Sosyal Nörobilim – Oğuz Tanrıdağ
– Zhong W., Cristofori I., Bulbulia J., Krueger F., Grafman J. (2017). Biological and cognitive underpinnings of religious fundamentalism. Neuropsychologia, 100 ,18-25.
– Goldstein, R. Z., & Volkow, N. D. (2011). Dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex in addiction: neuroimaging findings and clinical implications. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 12(11), 652–669.

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