Human brain recognizes and reacts to race

Apr 26, 2010

The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one's own race, according to new research out of the University of Toronto Scarborough.

This research, conducted by social at UofT Scarborough, explored the sensitivity of the "mirror-neuron-system" to race and ethnicity. The researchers had study participants view a series of videos while hooked up to electroencephalogram (EEG) machines. The participants - all white - watched simple videos in which men of different races picked up a glass and took a sip of water. They watched white, black, South Asian and East Asian men perform the task.

Typically, when observe others perform a simple task, their motor cortex region fires similarly to when they are performing the task themselves. However, the UofT research team, led by PhD student Jennifer Gutsell and Assistant Professor Dr. Michael Inzlicht, found that participants' motor cortex was significantly less likely to fire when they watched the visible minority men perform the simple task. In some cases when participants watched the non-white men performing the task, their brains actually registered as little activity as when they watched a blank screen.

"Previous research shows people are less likely to feel connected to people outside their own ethnic groups, and we wanted to know why," says Gutsell. "What we found is that there is a basic difference in the way peoples' brains react to those from other ethnic backgrounds. Observing someone of a different race produced significantly less activity than observing a person of one's own race. In other words, people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people"

The trend was even more pronounced for participants who scored high on a test measuring subtle , says Gutsell.

"The so-called mirror-neuron-system is thought to be an important building block for empathy by allowing people to 'mirror' other people's actions and emotions; our research indicates that this basic building block is less reactive to people who belong to a different race than you," says Inzlicht.

However, the team says cognitive perspective taking exercises, for example, can increase empathy and understanding, thereby offering hope to reduce prejudice. Gutsell and Inzlicht are now investigating if this form of perspective-taking can have measurable effects in the brain.

The team's findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Explore further: How to predict who will suffer the most from stress

Related Stories

Why it is impossible for some to 'just say no'

Oct 10, 2007

Drug abuse, crime and obesity are but a few of the problems our nation faces, but they all have one thing in common—people’s failure to control their behavior in the face of temptation. While the ability to control and ...

Looking through the broken mirror

Oct 14, 2008

Researchers at The University of Nottingham are hoping to learn more about the causes of autism and Asperger's Syndrome, by putting a controversial theory to the test.

Recommended for you

How to predict who will suffer the most from stress

9 minutes ago

More than 23 per cent of Canadians report being stressed or very stressed on most days. While chronic stress increases the risk of poor mental and physical health, not everyone is affected the same way. Some cope well, but ...

Self-compassion key to positive body image and coping

20 hours ago

Women who accept and tolerate their imperfections appear to have a more positive body image despite their body mass index (BMI) and are better able to handle personal disappointments and setbacks in their daily lives.

User comments : 28

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Bloodoflamb
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 26, 2010
Were any of the participants adopted children of 'minority' parents that grew up in other countries? I think that would be an interesting subset of people to look at.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (5) Apr 26, 2010
I think this happens because from birth people are trained to differentiate by race in most countries.

Perhaps we should simply remove the terminology of race from our social lexicon and try this research again.
Birthmark
2 / 5 (4) Apr 26, 2010
Yeah we have names such as black or white, as if they fit in separate categories...We're all the same, and semantics and the connotative meaning we put on these categories is what creates racism.
moj85
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 26, 2010
Does this hold for "visibly 'minority'" observers watching white participants do the same task? And tasks of other races? It seems like this is a hard thing to imply - mainly, that there is a lack of connection only for white people looking at minorities.
Otto1882
Apr 26, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Hunnter
4 / 5 (3) Apr 26, 2010
It is a safety mechanism present in a lot of species.
To stick with ones kind is one of the most basic of basics when it comes to safety.
To learn from those that are the same and not react to anything else (much) wouldn't be too hard to imagine happening as well.
And this has now been partially confirmed.
What they need to do is rerun this test on other races, and even completely different animals.

The ones that usually stray away from this behaviour almost certainly resulted in death in most other species.
Mice playing with elephants just wasn't meant to be.
But in the case of humans, we can actually overcome this primeval mechanism. (well, you'd think...)

This is why offspring that are "too different" usually get "pushed away" in some way. The runt.
This has been known to happen across a whole load of species, whether it was a difference by sight, sound, or even smell in some cases.
hooloovoo
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 26, 2010
Otto, you're right, I find that silly naivety quite annoying as well, but I think you overreacted somewhat ;).

Huunter has it right as well of course. We are programmed by our biology to identify more with people of our family group than with outsiders. It makes sense that there wouldn't be a total cut-off outside of this group, however. A gradual reduction with increasing differences makes more sense, and that is exactly what is observed.

Like it or not white people are not programmed by evolution to identify with black people, and the inverse is also true. Insert the names of any other races and it's still true.

Recognising this fact isn't the same as racism; anyone who thinks it is needs to grow up. We can't build a fair and tolerant society until people learn to accept plain facts instead of spouting ridiculous hyperbole.
otto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 26, 2010
I think this happens because from birth people are trained to differentiate by race in most countries.

Perhaps we should simply remove the terminology of race from our social lexicon and try this research again.
SH you're dating yourself... We are not tabula rasa. The 'urge to diverge' is a requisite to the formation of new species. Tribalism is something we have to unlearn, with constant reinforcement. More domestication at work. The use of a term like racism is a way of identifying the importance of the concept, and of shaming those who have trouble learning (bad doggie).
nevdka
3 / 5 (3) Apr 26, 2010
It's interesting that so many of these comments seem to assume this is a genetic phenomenon, rather than a learned one. It's entirely possible that we respond more to people that look like our parents, extended family or 'tribe' because they are the ones we grew up with. The article mentions the mirror-neuron system is associated with how we learn, and most of what we learn in our early years comes from people who look like us. Bloodoflamb's comment suggests an interesting extension to this research.
simonl
3.5 / 5 (4) Apr 26, 2010
What would this experiment show if you let a Northern Ireland catholic watch and Northern Ireland protestant? Or let a serbian watch a croatian? Hutu watch a tutsi?

All these are groups of people who are racially identical, but for historic/religious/other silly reasons "hate" each other, are taught to do so in school, have waged wars, etc etc.

Would their brains respond in the same way? If so, it is all learned, and has nothing to do with color or other obvious traits.
probes
3.5 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2010
What if the watched people have curly hair?
CarolinaScotsman
3.3 / 5 (6) Apr 27, 2010
Toronto has a low percentage of minorities. What if the same test were conducted in a city where the ethnic percentages were more evenly split? As Bloodlamb and Nevdka mentioned, the people one grows up with and associates with on a regular basis may have a large impact on the results of this test. I don't think this one test settles the nurture vs nature debate in this area.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.3 / 5 (3) Apr 27, 2010
SH you're dating yourself... We are not tabula rasa. The 'urge to diverge' is a requisite to the formation of new species. Tribalism is something we have to unlearn, with constant reinforcement. More domestication at work. The use of a term like racism is a way of identifying the importance of the concept, and of shaming those who have trouble learning (bad doggie).

You're following an archaeic thought process that has been consistently disproved.

Humans are naturally cooperative with other humans due to our genetic lineage. When we encounter other groups we most often engaged in trade and swapped women. It wasn't until urbanization, religion, and paucity of resources that we began to war whole heartedly.
trantor
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 27, 2010
what if the experiment was performed in Brazil, where there is much more mixing and people see race in a different way?? This study is too shallow and completely inconclusive. Too small group from one "race" only, from one CULTURE only.

And for Otto, stop being stupid. The existance of race as a valid biological concept is disputed among scientists. Where are you getting your info from? Stormfront?
magpies
Apr 27, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
otto1923
3 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2010
Humans are naturally cooperative with other humans due to our genetic lineage. When we encounter other groups we most often engaged in trade and swapped women
Thats the kind of thing we learned from high school and tv but it's not true. Our nature is to defend territory and women. We didn't swap women- we stole them. Chimps, gorillas do the same thing.

Cooperation only happens in the absence of perceived competition (rare) or out of desperation. The norm in the human condition is tribal conflict brought about by overpopulation. 'Any species will tend to produce more offspring than can be expected to survive to maturity.' In the absence of natural attrition this means inevitable conflict over resources. Read Dawkins.
http://en.wikiped...nk_Slate

-The research above and many, many others like it supercede your views on cooperation. Amerinds learned what they could from Vikings and then killed them- time and again.
random
4 / 5 (3) Apr 27, 2010
This goes way beyond race and species to the very basis of herd mentality. Our instinct is to stay with the herd in order to avoid the wolves. The primary means we use to identify the herd varies based on the strongest sensory cues. This tends to be sight, which is why the animal world is highly color-coded. In absence of strong primary visual cues we use things such as language, social class, behavioral patterns, taste in music, etc... Our ability to discriminate is perhaps the single most developed human faculty. Coupled with herd mentality and survival instincts you get the world we live in today.
otto1923
3 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2010
It wasn't until urbanization, religion, and paucity of resources that we began to war whole heartedly
Where've you been sir? Disneyland? Humans evolved in a continuous state of tribal warfare for a million years. Again, we see this in our simian relatives who aren't nearly as good at defeating natures foes as we are:
http://www.usnews...ar_3.htm
-Youre thinking Lewis and Clark and the hakawi. I'm thinking the Huns and ghengis khan. Their motivations were not religious, but merely to supplant other peoples with their own.
otto1923
1 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2010
Our instinct is to stay with the herd in order to avoid the wolves
Depends on if you're a sheep or a wolf. Although the propensity for both exists within any species, including us, our recent Pleistocene evolution has made us predatory. Modern cultural husbandry actively seeks to change us into grazers.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2010
Youre thinking Lewis and Clark and the hakawi. I'm thinking the Huns and ghengis khan. Their motivations were not religious, but merely to supplant other peoples with their own.

No, I'm following anthropological evidence, you're following nihilistic philosophy.
otto1923
2.5 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2010
That's NOT where I'm coming from, and if you had followed the links and updated your knowledge about the current state of scientific understanding of the brain, you'd know that. There are whole mainstream fields of research- widely accepted- such as evolutionary sociology and anthropology, cognitive psychology- which accept the notion that our brains and behaviors evolved along with our bodies in response to biological and environmental influence. We are born with animalistic traits which we have to unlearn in order to function in society. 

Pinker addresses our cultural fears of nihilism and inequality as described in the wiki link. Your aversion to racism, while absolutely right and proper, is a learned response to an innate biological mechanism; not the other way around. This is testament to the potential power of nurture over nature. But as pinker says we shouldn't let it cloud our understanding of how the brain works.
fourthrocker
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 27, 2010
More BS research in my opinion. The brain reacts to DIFFERENT. Whether it's skin color, a wart on the nose, purple hair, different shaped eyes, a large birthmark, anything different is strange and we react to it, which is why the word stranger is sometimes synonymous with enemy. It isn't just race.
Skeptic_Heretic
2 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2010
More BS research in my opinion. The brain reacts to DIFFERENT. Whether it's skin color, a wart on the nose, purple hair, different shaped eyes, a large birthmark, anything different is strange and we react to it, which is why the word stranger is sometimes synonymous with enemy. It isn't just race.

I'm with 4th on this one. It's learned differences and lack of interest in social interaction that allows the rise of tribalism. Individuals may have a pre-programmed pattern bias, however, a human looks like a human regardless of what color he is.
otto1923
5 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2010
It's learned differences and lack of interest in social interaction that allows the rise of tribalism.
Well, youre obviously wrong, and 1M years of evolution as well as most researchers in the subject today would tell you so. Pleistoceners were extremely interested in survival. Tribalism is how they dealt with it and the more successful tribes prevailed in conflict. The ability to cooperate within tribes is what made them successful against their enemies. Research like the article only reinforce this idea. This is common knowledge SH. It might be unpleasant to contemplate but it is true.
Mauricio
Apr 28, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
JayK
3 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2010
Mauricio, otto is correct. Humans determine differences based on simple external queues, such as Skeptic_Heritic's mention of moles, wrinkles, etc. But they also determine "race" as a separate identity and this has absolutely nothing to do with DNA, it has to do with certain physical markers and unconscious reasoning. Were you even remotely aware of the studies into this topic before you made a mistaken attack on Otto? I doubt it.
otto1923
Apr 28, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
JayK
3 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2010
The key studies indicating that racial identity is formed by evolutionary pressures would be those based on infants:
http://www3.inter...abstract
Three month olds were able to determine their own racial identities and appeared capable of determining race based on facial features.

Humans determine race based on unconscious indicators and form tribal determinations from that. Study after study has shown this to be true, and this article points to just one more study.

Racial identifiers for scientific purposes are DNA based, due to the need to have qualified benchmarks, but the unconscious human mind doesn't determine identity based on some sort of DNA scan.
Mauricio
Apr 28, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Mauricio
Apr 28, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
otto1923
Apr 29, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
otto1923
Apr 29, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
ontheinternets
not rated yet May 01, 2010
Toronto has a low percentage of minorities.


False. I am from Toronto -- and I took a minute to find a link to show it:
From http://www.toront...sity.htm
:
"47 per cent of Toronto's population (1,162,635 people) reported themselves as being part of a visible minority"

I don't know why you would have said that Toronto has a low percentage of minorities. Perhaps if you visited Toronto and kept to tourist areas, you may have see a lot of English-speaking white people along with minorities speaking other languages who you may have presumed are tourists.

There is however something more interesting going on in Toronto (and other Canadian cities). In Canada, we are taught that Canadian cities are a "cultural mosaic", whereas relatively speaking, American cities are more of a "melting pot". Minorities often self-segregate into certain areas, speak their native language, and visit their own businesses.
otto1923
not rated yet May 01, 2010
Minorities often self-segregate into certain areas, speak their native language, and visit their own businesses.
Naw its the same here. You have litte italys, chinatowns, hasidic neighborhoods, Skokie Ill, etc. Zoning and real estate laws strictly forbid segregation and any mention of race when selling homes; but self-segregation is the natural tendency. Even businesses- Sikhs pump the gas, hispanics cut the grass, indians run the hotels and convenience stores. Why that is I dont know.
Bloodoflamb
not rated yet May 01, 2010
@JayK: From the article:
Note, however, that some
non-race-related, idiosyncratic features of the stimuli
may have had an effect on the infants' ability to
recognize the faces. The Asiatic faces used as stimuli
may be intrinsically less discriminable than our
Caucasian stimuli. A direct verification of this possibility
would require testing Asiatic people on the
same stimuli.
Also:
Note, however, that some
non-race-related, idiosyncratic features of the stimuli
may have had an effect on the infants' ability to
recognize the faces. The Asiatic faces used as stimuli
may be intrinsically less discriminable than our
Caucasian stimuli. A direct verification of this possibility
would require testing Asiatic people on the
same stimuli.
Sounds like racial identification was a result of habituation to faces of their parents, as I assume that probably all of the tested children were biological children of their parents.
gwrede
1 / 5 (2) May 02, 2010
They should now do the same test with dogs watching the same and a few different dog races. I bet the outcome would be the same. But the ensuing explanations, I can't predict.