The Source of Racial Awareness and Racism in the Human Brain?

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A new study links a primitive area of the brain to the development of racial awareness, and perhaps racism as well.



It has often been observed that young children seem to be oblivious to racial differences, whereas an awareness of racial differences, and negative perceptions towards people from other races, becomes common by adulthood.  Because the prevalence of racism is so high among adults from all racial backgrounds, this striking difference in racial awareness between children and adults has led some experts to speculate whether racial awareness and racism are learned traits or the result of biological factors within the brain (or both).

The amygdala is an almond-shaped paired organ deep within the brain, and it exerts a powerful emotional influence on our experiences and memories.  In particular, the amygdala has been implicated in fear, anger and avoidance responses to threatening or frightening experiences, and electrical stimulation of the amygdala in mammals has been shown to induce aggression and hypersexual behavior.  The amygdala also appears to be intimately involved in the storage and processing of memories associated with emotion-laden events.

As part of the brain’s limbic system, the amygdala plays an important role in attaching a layer of emotional content to both memories and physical stimuli (such as noxious physical or psychological experiences, for example).  Now, a newly published clinical research study suggests that the amygdala may also play a significant role in the development of racial awareness, and negative views towards people of other races, as the brains of children mature during adolescence.  This new research study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

In this study, a special magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, functional MRI imaging, was used to monitor the activity of the amygdala in young volunteers between the ages of 4 and 16 years.  In this study, 32 of these young volunteers viewed photographs of African American and European American faces while undergoing functional MRI imaging, and two very important findings were identified.

First, as most of us parents already know, there was no evidence of any conscious racial awareness, or negative race-based perceptions, among the younger children who participated in this novel study; and specifically, there was no difference in activity levels within the amygdala of these young children when they viewed the photographs of people from varying racial backgrounds.  On the other hand, when teenaged subjects viewed photographs of people of other races, significant, measurable differences in the activity of the amygdala were identified by the functional MRI scan.

Secondly, the older volunteers who had been exposed to greater racial diversity throughout their lives were noted to have a much less intense reaction in the amygdala when viewing photos of people of other races, when compared to the subjects who had experienced more limited diversity in their lives.

Taken together, the findings of this innovative little study suggest that racial awareness develops over time, and first becomes physiologically apparent around the time of adolescence.  Specifically, the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with particularly strong and often negative emotions, appears to be the primary site in the brain associated with the development of racial awareness during adolescence, and perhaps with negative perceptions towards people of other races as well.  Unquestionably, however, the most important finding of this small study was that adolescents with exposure to more racial diversity during childhood appeared to experience significantly less intense activity in the amygdala when they viewed photos of people from other racial groups.  Therefore, the findings of this functional brain imaging study fit very well with countless previous observations that distinct racial awareness is rarely present in young children, and that people who grow up in more racially diverse environments tend to have fewer negative impressions of people from other racial backgrounds as they grow older.  The observation, in this study, that a tiny but powerful area of the brain which exerts so much control over the emotions of fear and aggression also appears to be directly involved in racial awareness, and negative perceptions of people from dissimilar races, is, simultaneously, both fascinating and not very surprising.

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Dark as Night, Part 1

Dark as Night, Part 1

Dark as Night, Part 1

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Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity


Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author


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