Mirror, mirror: What our neurons can tell about eliminating racial bias and promoting racial harmony

Despite potential for disconnection based on race, humans are physiologically wired to transcend this racial divide

Dave Jean, BA
The George Washington University

Dave Jean, BA“It is the eye of other people that ruin us.” -Benjamin Franklin

On the night of February 26, at approximately 7:08 p.m., George Zimmerman called a non-emergency number for the Sanford Police department to report what he perceived as suspicious behavior. Mr. Zimmerman stated, “We’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy.” He described the other young man, Trayvon, to the dispatcher, saying he’s “just walking around looking about… this guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” Later Mr. Zimmerman stated on the recording that, “these #$$holes always get away.” A chase ensued, and by the end of the night one young man lay dead, less than a 100 yards from his soon to be step-mother’s home. Although not all the facts of the night are clear, one thing is certain: Mr. Zimmerman saw young Trayvon and perceived a likely criminal. But why would a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain perceive a young unarmed teen as a threat? Recent studies on mirror neurons have begun to delve into what people see when looking at one another, and these findings have major implications for how people can relate to one another in moments like the one that occurred on the 26th of February.

So what is a mirror neuron? These neurons fire when an animal observes an action being performed by another as well as when the animal performs the same action. In 1980, Rizzolatti and colleagues were studying movement in monkeys and they noticed something bizarre. When they picked up a peanut to hand to the monkey, some of the monkey’s motor neurons began to fire. These same neurons fired when the monkey itself grabbed the object. Other studies on mirror neurons have looked at not just actions, but perceptions of peoples’ emotions.

Wicker and colleagues (2003) used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of participants while they inhaled noxious odors. Participants then saw a video of an actor wrinkling his face in a disgusted look. Wicker and his colleagues (2003) found that feeling disgusted and seeing a face that looked disgusted activated a similar section of the olfactory area of participants’ brains. The evidence for these systems makes sense given that human beings are such social organisms. If one looks at a person, and can feel what he/she feels, or guess what he/she is potentially thinking then, connections can be made, learning can take place, individuals can learn to relate to one another, and empathy can develop. But sometimes, in various contexts, like the night of February 26, such signals can be completely missed. Recent studies on mirror neurons are beginning to clarify possible reasons for this disconnect.

Xu and colleagues (2009) asked groups of Chinese and Caucasian college students to watch 48 video clips of the faces of people seemingly receiving painful (needle) or nonpainful (Q-tip) stimuli. The faces were of either a Chinese actor or a Caucasian actor. After each video clip, participants were instructed to judge whether or not the model was feeling pain by pressing a button using the right index or middle finger. Brain scans were also taken after each clip. In addition, the participants were asked to assess pain intensity of the model in the clip, as well as their own feeling of unpleasantness due to watching the clip. The results were as intriguing as they were shocking.

The authors found that perception of painful stimulation on faces increased activity in part of the brain associated with first-person experiences of pain. Other neuro-imaging evidence indicated that activation responses were significantly linked to racial group membership. Empathic responses to perceptions of others in pain decreased significantly when participants viewed racial outgroup members. These findings were consistent with both Caucasian and Chinese participants.

This data suggests that people may be more likely to empathize with one another along racial lines, which may help to explain the limited empathy that seemed to occur between two racially dissimilar individuals, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin on that tragic night in February. However, despite the potential for there to be a disconnection based on race, humans are physiologically wired to transcend this racial divide. One can see it, and almost feel it, anytime you see a smiling baby, or someone crying: we are built to be together. It is evident that there would be no point in having a mirror system if we as a people were not supposed to be relating, connecting and empathizing with one another. So, why can’t we all just get along?

References

Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V. (2001). Neuro-physiological mechanisms underlying the understanding and imitation of action. Natural Review of Neuroscience, 2, 661-670.

Wicker, B., Keysers, C., Plailly, J., Royet, J.P., Gallese, V., Rizzolatti, G. (2003). Both of us disgusted in my Insula: The common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. Neuron, 40, 655–664.

Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., & Han, S. (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(26), 8525–8529.

Dave Jean is a clinical psychology doctoral student at the George Washington University. He received his BA in psychology at Morehouse College in 2007. His recent training experiences include psychological testing and individual therapy for adolescence and adults in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. Although he has been trained primarily in cognitive behavioral paradigms, he understands and sees the value of a multidisciplinary approach to treatment as well as training. His professional and research interests include racial identity, learned helplessness, and public policy. He currently is interning for the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students.