The neuroscience of race

Nature Neuroscience has a review article by Jennifer T Kubota, Mahzarin R Banaji and Elizabeth Phelps in the current issue on how the brain functions in the context of racial interactions and decision-making processes. The article is accompanied by an open access, brief interview with one of the investigators, Liz Phelps.

With race much on my mind at the moment from an anthropological and evolutionary perspective, it is interesting to read about how it is treated in a very different disciplinary context. As an anthropologist I am particularly interested in variation within and between human populations as well as the differing normative states that can produce. One of the interview questions obliquely addresses this issue:

What about people who are overtly prejudiced?
Finding differences in people with extreme views wouldn’t be too surprising, but I’m not sure we’d see anything more than an exaggerated [emotional] response. We’re more interested in ‘normal’ people. Those who are more internally motivated to be non-prejudiced show greater ACC activity, whereas those who hold extreme views obviously have explicit, intentional race bias and don’t care about controlling their emotional responses.

It is a little bit hard to decipher what the scare quotes around “normal” are meant to imply in Phelps’ response, but the issue of normalcy here seems important. When it comes to interacting with other humans, we jump to conclusions (i.e. pre-judge) in the absence of supporting evidence constantly. Being prejudiced is completely normal. It would be difficult to operate in the complex social world we occupy with such a trait. The question is how values get associated with those pre-judgements, how easily we revise those pre-judgements, and how those initial responses impact subsequent decision making.

The review article sheds a little more light on this topic by expanding on the understanding of the ACC’s (anterior cingulate cortex) role in the brain.

Another brain region that has often been reported in neuroimaging studies of race is the dorsal ACC. Neuroscientists generally observe activation of the dorsal ACC when individuals experience conflict between prepotent and intentional response tendencies, including those elicited using cognitive control tasks such as the Stroop and Ericksen flanker tasks33, 34. It has been proposed that the ACC is involved in monitoring for response competition and, once a conflict is detected, serves to engage executive control35. In the race context, conflict between automatic, prepotent feelings and conscious intentions to respond fairly may explain the involvement of the ACC. Equality norms in American society dictate that behaving in a racially biased manner is unacceptable and many individual Americans share that aspiration. Ironically, although contemporary cultural norms stress equality and fairness, the culture is also saturated with negative associations of black Americans. Thus, for many individuals, conflict persists between egalitarian goals and automatic negative attitudes and stereotypes36, 37.

I find this reading of the attitude towards race in the United States as curious. In a whole host of ways racially biased responses are not only widespread and acceptable, but encouraged either passively or actively. While equality might be a constitutionalized ideal in the country, it is hardly the norm in the context of individual and structural interactions.

At the end of the review, the authors talk about the malleability of a racial circuitry in the brain. This section ends with some important cautions:

What has been interpreted to be race-based processing may also reflect a more general response in intergroup contexts. In two recent studies, researchers arbitrarily assigned mixed-race participants to one group or another. Subjects viewed pictures of members of their own arbitrarily assigned group or the other group during fMRI. The studies report heightened activity in the FFA to faces of arbitrarily assigned ingroup members compared with outgroup members, regardless of race72, 73. These results suggest that expertise with ingroup race exemplars per se may not lead to altered FFA responses74, but rather that the salient social group identity in the situation, which may or may not be race, could dictate lowered attention to outgroup members at the expense of encoding individuating features.

It is also important to note that differences in BOLD responses as a function of race may reflect a number of psychological processes, including basic visual perception differences to reflections of personally held beliefs and/or culturally acquired semantic associations that may result in behavioral expressions of prejudice.

It should not be surprising to see the brain activated in race interactions in characteristic and recognizable ways. The harder issue is deciphering how much of this response is actually about “race” versus some more abstract notion of group/individual identity and difference. Also, how much do these neurological responses respond to and get shaped by developmental, culturally-informed processes?


1. Kubota, J. T., M. R. Banaji, et al. (2012). “The neuroscience of race.” Nature Neuroscience 15(7): 940-948. doi:10.1038/nn.3136

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About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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