New research from the University of Toronto-Scarborough shows that white people’s mirror-neuron-system fires much less, if at all, when they watch people of colour performing motor tasks, and I’m not at all surprised. For years, I just assumed that this was true, and that someone just had to do a study to prove it.
After the United States invaded Iraq and massacred tens of thousands of Iraqis, worldwide terrorist recruitment skyrocketed, as well as terrorist attacks targetting the U.S. and coalition countries. Terrorist leaders cited the Iraq invasion and the deaths of Iraqis as the reason for the attacks. However, White Americans did not buy it, believing it to be a smokescreen for some other reason. It must be Islam, they reasoned, as they grasped at straws.
I then realized that the vast majority of White Americans could not empathize with brown people at a very basic level. For most White Americans, the death and violence of thousands of brown bodies was just part of some abstract ethical argument to position oneself as morally superior to the United States. For most White Americans, brown people dying just meant flickers on the television screen about something happening far away. They didn’t feel the overwhelming anger and sadness they would normally feel when someone they know dies without reason. They couldn’t see the full reality of what death means, when the people who die are brown.
I have seen white people complain online that they cannot see the facial expressions of (East) Asian faces. For many white people, East Asians are like emotionless robots who are efficient at machine-like things like number crunching. Some white people argue that while East Asians may be able to play musical instruments beautifully, they play music without soul.
Most white people just don’t see us as humans. When brown people die through violence, or East Asians express joy or sadness through our faces, most white people’s brains just don’t register the human connection between our bodies and their bodies. When we watch movies and TV shows and read books featuring white protagonists, we have to put ourselves into white people’s shoes to understand the stories and feel the emotions of sadness, laughter, and pride. But people of colour are rarely the protagonists in the media that white people watch, so they rarely or never have to imagine themselves as us.
When I watch some medical shows about a white person undergoing surgery, and the surgeon uses a sharp knife to break open pink skin, uses other instruments to yank out bloody tissue, or uses bloody string to sew up wounds, I can’t help but to squirm. My hands and arms unconsciously cover up the part of my body that corresponds to the area being operated on, as if protecting that part of my body from being penetrated by imaginary surgical instruments. From a purely rational perspective, this makes no sense. If I watch a (white) person being operated on from a third-person perspective, why should my body react as if it is my own body being traumatized?
Mirror neurons are a theoretical construct to explain this type of basic bodily empathy in terms of neurons (brain cells). In macaque monkeys, the neurons in the part of their brains that control bodily movement fire (or activate) when they perform bodily movements. However, neuroscientists discovered that these same monkey brain regions also fire when monkeys watch other monkeys perform the same actions. This discovery was revolutionary, because something that previously could not be explained by science—empathy—may be finally understood in terms of things happening in the brain. When a human empathizes with another human, it corresponds to her neural firing “mirroring” the neural firing of the other person, whose neurons would be firing because she would be performing the task itself.
In the recent neuroscience study on racial empathy by Jennifer Gutsell and Michael Inzlicht, they simply found physical evidence that white people have difficulty empathizing with non-white people:
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.
Note that nothing about this study suggests anything about racial empathy or lackthereof being hard-wired. The human brain is a living, dynamic organ made up of billions of living, changing neurons. An important concept in neuroscience is brain plasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to change with learning through the reorganization of neural connections. Studies on brain activity are about what the brain is doing, not about the brain being stuck or frozen in some permanent state. Brains don’t do that, unless they are dead.
The article also notes:
The trend was even more pronounced for participants who scored high on a test measuring subtle racism, says Gutsell.
Obviously-racist white people have more difficulty empathizing with people of colour than less-racist white people. This is not surprising. Lack of empathy is linked to racism.
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.
Or we can break down the white-centric media and education systems that use only white people as a model of humanity. Maybe the researchers should test if people of colour really dehumanize white people as much as white people dehumanize us.
- See? Told ya! by resistance at Resist racism
- Zuky’s tumblr comments on this post
- The hearts of white people: the science by Abagond
- Paper: Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups (PDF) (Hat-tip to irism)
- Open Thread: Science, Conclusions, and Assumptions (Racialicious) – Epic fail of a comment thread, which motivated me to write this post.