Comments on The Neuroscience of Prejudice

I accidentally got a press pass to the Science on Tap production called “You and Your Racist Brain: The Neuroscience of Prejudice” held at Portland’s Revolution Hall on October 3, 2016. Now I’d better write something. They had the lights down in the audience so I could take no notes. This is how I remember it after eleven days with travel to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and State College, PA for a sweet silver re-walk, no cake.

One of the first slides was of a Black man holding a White baby, and that baby wasn’t crying at all. The first conclusion was that we humans have no inherent preference for skin color, nose size, eye shape or any other physical attribute. We like faces that care for us.

Is that obvious? Humans, like other animals, are strange products of nature and nurture. Rabbits are famous for being instinctively afraid of a hawk’s shadow. And humans too seem to have instinctive or “non-associative” fears like that of loud noises. Personally, I feel that my discomfort at heights is instinctive, and yet how would I know? It had been commonly thought that humans instinctively fear snakes, and one could bloviate the usual evolutionary benefits. More recent studies show that fear of snakes is a learned response, and that this is also true of other primates. All of us apes effectively associate snakes with danger, and no kids need to get bit. Ooo Ooo Ooo!

The speaker explained that rather than an instinctive preference for skin color, or any other physical attribute, infants learn to see faces starting with their primary care givers. In our society children tend to first see their parents, then siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends. If these faces all share certain features, such as earlobe-attachment, eye shape, or shade, then the growing child will specialize in seeing these features. By age 4 or 5 a human child raised in a relative mono-culture will have measurably different neurological responses to faces to those they have already seen and to those with different features.

Does that make sense? Shoot, early human didn’t even have mirrors so how would an individual ever know what they looked like? What else could evolving humanoids know except what they saw? As Sartre always said, “existence precedes essence.” “The human brain is strong and flexible,” that’s what I always say.

To illustrate the results of the neurological studies, the speaker showed activity in the face-recognition area of the brain of a White guy looking at a White guy compared with that of a White guy looking at a Black guy. The White guy’s brain was lit up while looking at the White guy and just about off when looking at the Black guy. And there were affirmative um hmmm’s thorough the audience. If we assume that the White guy had been trained mostly on White faces, then this is expected within the conditioned response model of facial recognition. Indeed, the speaker mentioned that if the White guy is given a few minutes to study Black faces before being tested, then his brain lights up just fine when viewing the Black guy.

Is that surprising? Well, it reminded me of our trip to Korea last year. When we first arrived in Seoul, I was somehow surprised at the diversity of the Korean people. I guess I thought there were Koreans who kind of look like my mother-in-law and Koreans who kind of look like my father-in-law with a couple of odd uncles-in-law thrown in. Well, there is a lot more variety than that. More to the point is that after a week of traveling around and seeing more and more phenotypes, I lost the sense of Korean-ness altogether. I remember seeing a pedestrian from the bus who looked just like Peter Loben, my childhood neighbor and the only White guy on our high school basketball team. A second later, I couldn’t remember if Peter’s doppel-ganger was Korean or a Westerner or What. There was just something Peter-Lobenish about them.

The next few slides were about how the brain processes visual information. Like I said, I couldn’t take notes because it was so dark in there. It went something like: When a photon hits the eyeball the resulting signal from the optic nerve bounces off the back of the brain and splits into two signals, one for each hemisphere. One of the signals is used for movement and the other for recognizing static objects. There are known brain injury cases where the person could only see a series of static images. The upshot was that healthy humans are very good and fast at responding to visual cues like a 70 mile-per-hour ping pong ball or a human face. The speaker called this the “automatic response” in that it occurs before higher level frontal-lobe stuff kicks in.

Is that somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow?” Maybe this would be more like “Thinking Very Fast.” In any case, I sure try to turn off the conscious-linguistic part of my brain when playing ping pong. And it makes some sense to call my counter-attack “automatic.” However, as there is likely no ping pong gene, it is only “automatic” in the context of thousands of hours of training. With facial recognition, the training is measured in millions of hours. Because of this, I find the use of the term “automatic response” confusing. The scientific evidence presented showed two things: that humans instinctively respond quickly to faces, and that the response is wholly conditioned. It is only the quickness that can be called “automatic.” The particular neural response, whether positive, negative or indifferent, is a simple reflection of conditioning. I would call that a “fast conditioned response” way before I called it an “automatic response.”

To demonstrate how quickly our brains recognize facial features, the speaker flashed millisecond images of human faces. Most audience members seemed to recognize a Black man with a white beard in the first slide. Somewhat fewer seemed to understand the young Asian woman in the next. In any case, the speaker concluded that we can never be color blind like we thought we were supposed to be in the 60’s, and that we evolved to be so adept and quick at facial recognition, that we will always see the color of the other.

What do we think of that? Well, the press is no use unless it is critical.

“You and Your Racist Brain: The Neuroscience of Prejudice” is worth seeing on two levels: It presents neurological evidence that humans are not at all racist and at the same time demonstrates how difficult it is to escape our racial environment. Is the image of a Black man holding a White baby racist? I don’t know. I’d say that it made a certain impression because of our racial environment.

What about the image of a blank-brained White guy looking at a Black guy? I’d call that one racist. Science shows that recognition of faces has no causal relationship with the skin color of the viewer. I’d call it racist, because the image both does not communicate the science and does play into racial stereotypes.

Our shared racial environment is seen in the language of the speaker and how that language is heard. The speaker called the rapid interpretation of facial features an “automatic response.” When the White guy’s brain didn’t fire for the Black guy, this was because of a lack of “automatic response.” There were affirmative um hmmm’s throughout the audience at this. The problem here is that the “automatic” part only refers to the quickness and not the quality of the response. A few quotes from the advertisement for the talk illustrate how easily this is perverted: “…automatic prejudice that contributes to racism in our society…” and “… preconceived opinions about other people are not based on reason or experience but on instinct.” These statements are both at odds with the science presented and at evens with the prevailing racial winds.

How racially trained our brains are is further revealed in the millisecond images flashed on the screen. I question the conclusion that we can never be color blind like we thought we were supposed to be in the 60’s. There was certainly no scientific evidence presented for this hypothesis. The scientist in the speaker knew this and tried to finesse the proof by using the audience as test subjects. Indeed, we quickly ID-ed a Black man with a white beard. This, however, does not pass the science sniff test. We, the test subjects, were raised in racial times and are neurologically trained to ID a Black man with a white beard. This training disqualifies us as test subjects to project onto tomorrow’s or yesterday’s humans. It seems more likely that such flash-image experiments reveal whatever attributes society tells us are important, whether nose length, forehead angle, eye shape or any of uncountably many other attributes. In other words, the speaker’s flash image demonstration is a snapshot of our collective conditioning. It may be possible to teach a dog to respond to another dog’s color, and this seems like the last thing on the average dog’s mind.

The main scientific conclusion of the presentation is that human facial recognition is consistent with a blank-slate theory: Infants have no instinctual preferences for facial types; rather, we humans simply learn to recognize whatever facial features we see. This is reinforced by the second conclusion: Even White adults trained for decades on a relative mono-culture of faces can learn to see different faces in a matter of a few minutes. This simple and encouraging message was obscured by the sum of our racially-conscious histories. The image of a blank-brained White man looking at a Black man got affirmative ‘um hmmm’s from the audience and yet hid the interesting science. Finally, the use of the term “automatic response” is too easily misconstrued to “automatic prejudice,” which is wholly unscientific.

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