“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 U of T 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 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 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.”
Actually, what the researchers found was not that “people’s brains” react differently when they watch people of other races than their own.
What they found was that white people’ brains reacted differently when they watched non-whites, as opposed to other whites. A bit of a difference.
Now, if the researchers had also done tests with brown people as the study group and then blacks and other groups, then it would be valid for them to generalize from their research to conclusions about people as a whole.
But they can’t generalize about “people” from one subset of people without being guilty of the very thing they’re supposed to be studying, racism.
Of course, the perceptions of the whites in the study might not have had so much to do with color as such, although it manifested that way, but as with the status evoked by white skin. Since white or light-skin tends to signify higher status in contemporary society, it follows that when white people – in this study – showed less awareness of or empathy toward dark-skinned people, they might have been doing that not so much because of the different skin-colors of the people they were observing, but because of what those colors signify today, which is lower status.
This inference is strengthened by a similar study of race and perception conducted by Sophie Trawalter et al. in 2012.
Quoting from the abstract of the Trawalter study:
Archival data from the National Football League injury reports reveal that, relative to injured White players, injured Black players are deemed more likely to play in a subsequent game, possibly because people assume they feel less pain. Experiments 1–4 show that White and Black Americans–including registered nurses and nursing students–assume that Black people feel less pain than do White people. Finally, Experiments 5 and 6 provide evidence that this bias is rooted in perceptions of status, not race per se.
The authors suggest that the findings of their study do not necessarily mean that whites are being racist in not caring when non-white people feel pain. The findings could also mean that white people show less empathy because, for one reason or other, they think black people can tolerate greater pain.
Of course, none of these conclusions means much until studies of black or brown perceptions of white people are also done.
One might guess that in those studies it will be found that browns and blacks are actually more sensitive to the pains of whites than those of their own. One might guess that, because in recent studies it’s been shown that both whites and blacks rated white faces as more intelligent, honest, and attractive than they did black/dark-skinned faces….
I’ll pull up the link in a minute… (incomplete)