Friday, February 15, 2008

Prejudice and Mentalism: It's All In Your mPFC

Scientific American reports on a study that shows difference in medial pre-frontal cortex activity when distinguishing between people who are part of one's group and who are not.

The experimenters used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of Harvard and other Boston-area students while showing them pictures of other college-age people whom the researchers randomly described as either liberal northeastern students or conservative Midwest fundamentalist Christian students. The categories were a ruse.

Heightened activity in the ventral mPFC was associated with mentalization of self-similar people, whereas dorsal mPFC activity was associated with mentalization of self-dissimilar people. But when the participant pondered the subject in situations where an outsider was believed to behave in the same way as the participant would, activity in dorsal and ventral mPFC was equivalent.

With continuing advancements in the field of neuroscience, this study presents some excellent data to help us better understand the roots of prejudice and stereotyping. This study also poses potential challenges for the future since humans have a tendency to follow up discovery with manipulation - how long until someone posits the use of treatment to suppress activity in the parts of the brain responsible for prejudice, discrimination and bigotry? Are these "diseases" to be cured, deficiencies born of ignorance, or simply a part of being human?


Anonymous said...

Like so many of you who are interested in the ethical implications of the new neuro-imaging technologies, I sometimes take a step back and ask "am I surprised that this behavior can be visualized in the brain"? For example, I'm not surprised that people have deep (pre-conscious? hard wired?) reactions to those that they perceive as different because those feelings are so hard to change.
I worry though, that, we don't enough to say that this behavior is "innate." It is still the case that we have to be "carefully taught" who is different--especially if their physical appearance isn't different. This study told students characteristics of the people in the pictures that they would not have perceived from the pictures alone. Would a person in China re-act the same way to two people from different regions in the U.S.?
The ethics and feminist tie-in, be careful what conclusions we allow to be drawn from this frenzy of brain imaging. Example: Just because we see women's brains reacting differently to a spatial relations test does not definitely mean society plays no role in women's lack of interest in baseball or engineering. Nor does it mean that women who are interested in these things "aren't normal."
Example 2: Just because someone's brain shows thinking patterns identical to a serial killer MAY not mean he is one or is likely to become one.
I wrote a short comment in AJOB about this and am writing a law review article. I "feel" in my gut that someone--the media? Us?-is over-selling the meaning of these amazing and beautiful images and that harm can come from these conclusions.

Jennifer Bard said...

Sorry, that wasn't meant to be anonymous.
Jennifer Bard

SabrinaW said...

Jennifer, I agree completely that we need to approach this issue with a great deal of skepticism and critical thinking, and that we will probably end up with more questions than answers. But I think it is important to be able to speculate on the potential directions that less enlightened people may try to take this so we can anticipate how to discuss these issues.

(Is that a reference to "South Pacific"? :) )