Media Releases

Human brain recognizes and reacts to race

April 26, 2010

TORONTO, ON — 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 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 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.

“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.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Jen­nifer Gut­sell, lead author
416–458-1859 (cell) or 416–208-4868 (lab)

Michael Inzlicht, sec­ond author
416–820-2395 (cell)