Is the human brain... a racist?
There are some worrying indications that it could be. After all, the cerebrum is largely composed of so-called
Seriously though. There's a paper just out in Nature Neuroscience from Kubota et al that looks at The Neuroscience Of Race. It's a fine review as far as it goes, but to me at least, it really shows up the limits of contemporary neuroscience.
We are told that
A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.
So there have been studies investigating which bits of American's brains activate in response to looking at photos of black people vs. white people. It emerges that "a network of interacting brain regions" light up. But so what?
Sure, the brain reacts differently to seeing people of different races. Of course it does - it reacts differently to everything, so long as we can perceive a difference; that's how we perceive a difference. And of course race, a deeply emotive issue in American politics and culture, activates 'emotional' parts of the brain - that's how it's emotive.
The included studies all scanned Americans and (presumably) mostly college students. Now most American college students are not active racists, and indeed I'd imagine that their emotional brains are more likely to be worrying self-referentially about racism than about the actual race of the stimuli. No-one seems to have scanned card-carrying members of the KKK. Furthermore, "race" in these studies almost always means "blackness". What about Latinos, Asians?
So what have we learned?
I don't think we've learned much about race. "Race" after all is a confused mixture of emotions, attitudes and beliefs. These differ greatly from person to person, and even the same individual may experience conflicting feelings in different contexts. Kubota et al note this and say that it may explain the mixed findings (black faces activate the amygdala more than white in some studies, not in others) but I'd have said that in this case, only inconsistent results are credible.
What does it tell us about the brain? I'd say not much. The authors weave a neat little narrative - in response to seeing black faces, the amygdala and other emotional areas activate as a negative emotional response; the ACC then detects this racist response and sees that it's unacceptable, and the DLPFC then suppresses it like a parent hurriedly interrupting a young child who's making a faux pas.
But all the elements of this story - the automatic, emotional amygdala, the supervisory DLPFC - are borrowed from other neuroscience studies so at best the race literature confirms these theories but it doesn't even really do that, because there are many other possible interpretations.
I'd say that we need to know much more in terms of the 'basic' neuroscience of emotion, attitudes and beliefs because we can tackle the hornet's nest of race in the brain.
Kubota JT, Banaji MR, and Phelps EA (2012). The neuroscience of race. Nature neuroscience, 15 (7), 940-8 PMID: 22735516