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Human brain recognizes and reacts to race

Date:
April 27, 2010
Source:
University of Toronto
Summary:
The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one's own race, according to new research.

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 neuroscientists at University of Toronto-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 people observe others perform a simple task, their motor cortex region fires similarly to when they are performing the task themselves. However, the U of T 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 motor-cortex 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 racism, 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.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Toronto. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Jennifer N. Gutsell, Michael Inzlicht. Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.03.011

Cite This Page:

University of Toronto. "Human brain recognizes and reacts to race." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 April 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100426113108.htm>.
University of Toronto. (2010, April 27). Human brain recognizes and reacts to race. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100426113108.htm
University of Toronto. "Human brain recognizes and reacts to race." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100426113108.htm (accessed August 20, 2014).

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