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How Is The Human Brain Hardwired Critical Thinking

Racism is 'hardwired' into the human brain - and people can be prejudiced without knowing it

  • Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions
  • Even 'right thinking' people can have racist attitudes
  • Racism operates below the conscious level

By Rob Waugh

Published: 11:33 GMT, 26 June 2012 | Updated: 15:12 GMT, 26 June 2012


Racism is hardwired into the brain, say scientists - and it operates unconsciously.

The same circuits in the brain that allow us to see which ethnic group a person belongs to overlap with others that drive emotional decisions.

The result is that even right-thinking individuals make unconscious decisions based on a person's race.

Skinhead: But most racism operates on an unconscious level, say researchers - and even 'right thinking' individuals may react in a racist way

Brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.

The finding may force researchers to think about racism in entirely new ways.

It's possible, the researchers say, that even right-thinking, 'egalitarian' people could harbour racist attitudes without knowing.

The chemicals involved in perceiving ethnic backgrounds overlap with those for processing emotion and making decisions, according to new research.

And the findings published in Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

Dr Elizabeth Phelps, of New York University, and colleagues reviewed previous brain scanning studies showing how social categories of race are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making.

They showed a network of brain regions called the the amygdala, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes.

The researchers said the brain areas themselves - as well as the functional connectivity among them - are critical for this processing.

Dr Phelps said: ‘A few decades ago, it was unthinkable that looking at the brain to understand representations of social groups such as black versus white was even possible.'

Dr Phelps said: ‘A few decades ago, it was unthinkable that looking at the brain to understand representations of social groups such as black versus white was even possible, let alone that such explorations could yield useful knowledge.

‘Evidence from neuroscience has been vital in clarifying the nature of how intergroup cognition unfolds.

‘Moreover, the neuroscience of race has been useful in pointing the way toward the type of new behavioural evidence needed to answer questions of not only what happens when intergroup cognition is at stake, but whether and how change is possible in real human interactions.

‘How to use this knowledge from brain and behaviour to further extend basic knowledge and to drive applications is the obvious next generation of questions that we must pose.

‘If good people who intend well act in a manner inconsistent with their own standards of egalitarianism because of the racial groups to which 'the other' belongs, then the question of change takes on new and urgent meaning.

‘This urgency requires that we attend to the evidence about how our minds work when we confront racial and other group differences.

‘Thus far, we have obtained modest evidence about these processes as they operate in our brains, unbeknownst to our conscious selves. The question of what we will do with these insights awaits an answer.’


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For many years, it was believed that the human brain is essentially hardwired—that we are born with a set of cognitive abilities, which are more or less unalterable for the rest of our lives. But the discovery of neuroplasticity—our brain’s ability to selectively transform itself in response to certain experiences—has proven to be one of the biggest paradigm shifts that neuroscience has seen over the last 25 years. Simply put, neuroplasticity refers to our brain’s malleability—its ability to respond to certain intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing and building its structure, function and connections (NCBI).

Faculty at the University of Washington illustrate neuroplasticity through a simple camera analogy. When clicking the image of a tree, the camera film must react to light and ‘transform’ itself to record the image. Our brain is like the film—it reacts and transforms itself when recording or experiencing certain stimuli.

The fact that our brain doesn’t just absorb—but can also re-wire itself in response to certain repeated activities and experiences—has opened new opportunities for cognitive therapy. What it means is that cognitive functions such as attention, memory, critical thinking, decision making, multitasking and abstract reasoning may be managed and improved. Consider the case of attention and inhibition dysfunction in children.

Mistakes caused by deficits in attention and problems caused by impulsivity plague millions of children, with one in three parents believing that problems with attention and impulsivity are holding their child back from a more successful life. Poor attention and impulsivity are not only the most common causes of underachievement academically; these issues also cause major stress at home and impair self-esteem. It isn’t just the children with attention problems who suffer. The people around them often suffer as well. Parents raising children with these problems are about twice as likely to divorce by the time their children reach eight years of age as parents with children who don't have such issues.

Evidence in the literature suggests that a standard regimen of non-medical care that involves certain brain training techniques can help children overcome enhance attention and reduce impulsive behavior. A number of commercially available programs, games and interactive systems claim to ’exercise the brain’ to enhance memory, attention, flexibility, processing speed, and problem solving, to name a few. The hope for the parent is that such brain exercise will, in fact, naturally rewire that part of their child’s brain that manages the targeted cognitive function. However, product reviews raise doubts as to any real school and home benefits, other than gaining a proficiency at playing the game. Further, boredom and a lack of demonstration of real success have led children to drop the program before progress has been made.

Atentiv, Inc. is developing new products based on the tenets of neuroplasticity that are showing real promise in children ages 8-12 who have trouble sustaining attention and contraining their impulses. In multiple preliminary clinical studies in more than 50 children with moderately severe dysfunction, Atentiv has demonstrated an ability to establish sustained attention and impulsivity control. Depending on the study, children were followed for three to four months following completion of a core training regimen, then reevaluated and determined still to be able to sustain attention and contain impulses as well as their peers. Such improvements are now being recognized in the classroom with a full grade level—or more--advances in math, reading and executive functioning, along with a vastly improved home life.

Unlike any other neurofeedback system currently available, the Atentiv™ System is a digital application platform that combines an electroencephalography (EEG) based brain-to-computer interface technology with dynamic cognitive modeling to train specific attention and inhibition skills. First, the system measures and captures discreet factors of brain activity for each player’s range of attention levels to establish a highly personalized set of neural correlates or ‘cognitive signature’ of inattention to attention-only brain activity. Highly engaging game applications then use this unique ‘signature’ to adaptively target, challenge and systematically raise selected elements of one’s attention and inhibition skills to normal behavior levels.

Children think it’s fun to play the Atentiv games. Moving an avatar around the screen simply by paying attention to it—no hands or keyboard involved—seems like magic to most kids and quickly draws them in. And the program works fast. Just 8 hours of game play (three 20 minute sessions/week) spread over 8 weeks. Each training session is personalized, based on each child’s unique skill level.

Additional applications in development extend to other cognitive dysfunctions as well, utilizing a similar EEG based/dynamic cognitive modeling approach. That is, once you can precisely measure a person’s cognitive skills, then you can dynamically challenge and develop new skills by taking advantage of one’s innate neuroplasticity. Simply stated, ‘if you can precisely measure the defined cognitive function that you want to train, only then can you reach to a targeted behavioral outcome.’

Without precise measurements, targeting and modeling, one cannot hope to optimize outcomes for attention, impulsivity or any other cognitive function.

The progress now being made through science’s greater understandings of our brain’s natural abilities and neuroplasticity is accelerating. As the neuroscience of the brain continues to develop, we may have more opportunity to create cognitive tools that can safely and effectively target some of the most complex behavioral and mental disorders.

Eric Gordon is the founder and CEO of Atentiv Incorporated, a company launched to advance personalized educational tools to significantly improve personal productivity in the classroom, work and life.

Dr. Hallowell is a child and adult psychiatrist and the founder of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, MA and New York City. He is a frequent lecturer and speaker, and is the New York Times’ bestselling author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!

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