They all look alike! Have you ever heard that? Have you ever teased a friend who mistakenly called you by another persons name of your same race? Traditionally, that has been a marker we've used for racism in a person. I remember being called by another co-workers name and laughing telling the person who'd made the mistake, "We don't all look alike!" Well, there is evidence that to him, we actually do!
The superior temporal sulcus is a part of the brain that helps us read different expressions on the faces of others. It tells us whether the person appears OK to approach, to run away from them or to get ready to fight. Another region of the brain called the fusiform face (FFA) area helps us recognize what is familiar and what is not, who is a friend and who is an enemy. Of course these areas are important for survival and social acceptance. If you cannot judge if someone is angry, perhaps you may mistakenly say or do something that provokes them into a physical fight. Or, if you misinterpret someone as a friend when they are a long time enemy, you may end up in a rather dicey situation.
Stanford researchers and neuroscientists specializing in human memory conducted a study using a Functional magnetic resonance imaging matching (fMRI) to track blood flow changes in the brains of dozens of black and white volunteers as they watched pictures of the faces of black and white subjects. The stronger response to a face, the brighter the sensors shined.
They found that the FFA responded more vigorously to faces that were the same race as the participant. This was a consistent finding in both white and black participants. When shown the photographs again later, participants were able to recognize those faces that their FFA had responded to the most in the prior test.
It has been well documented that people are much better at recognizing faces of their own race. This is called the "other -race-effect." By the time babies are three months old. their brains react more strongly to the faces of people of their own race. As they get older, this connection grows stronger. Of course, this is a lot for the brain to process. In social circumstances, we are required to process everything we need to know in an instant. In order to be more efficient at this, the brain will unconsciously categorize everything in its environment. But sometimes, the category is so strong that it shapes our perception. What we see will bend to whatever category we have placed on that item, person or situation.
"We reserve our precious cognitive resources for those who are "like us." Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt
Jennifer Eberhardt, Brent Hughes, Nocholas camp and other Stanford researchers found that white participants exhibited more brain activity in areas that specialize in processing faces when shown white faces than when shown black faces as if the brain were dedicating more specificity to the details of the white faces. This response lessened the more they were shown the same white as that white faces began to become categorized and less novel.. There was less of a response when shown different black faces suggesting those faces were placed in a category requiring less neuroprocessing.. As the white participants were shown different black faces, the response remained suppressed as if the brain simply saw the same category over and over.
In her book, "Biased" Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt remarks on the findings of the study,
"Their brains were responding to the type of category that was being presented-a black face, another black face, another black face, the same thing, over and over again- rather than the individual, unique identity of each face. And once faces are categorized as "out-group" members, they are not processed as deeply or attended to as carefully. We reserve our precious cognitive resources for those who are "like us."
While categorizing things and people is not always a bad thing, after all the cave man who thought "Is that a good or bad animal with long fangs and sharp claws coming toward me." likely didn't survive long. Sometimes we place people in categories they don't necessarily belong in because of our own exposure to biased images, stories or lack of exposure. Sometimes our categories are so strong that our perceptions bend to fit our preconceived categories.
So what does this mean? Well, a couple of things. First, our brains are wired in a bit of a tribalistic way. In other words, we are very much focused on dealing with those who are like us. Next, race plays a major role in how we process what we see. In order to overcome the trap of categorizing other races, try focusing on a feature of the face that stands out to you. Say their name in your head several times when you see them and if practical out loud. Finally, if you don't recall their name, ask them. The embarrassment of having to ask someone their name when you think you should already know may provide the little bit of the emotional tie to the name and attach a face to then name to get you on your way to unmasking the biasphere