Sunday, August 4, 2013

The United States of Amygdala?

WE'VE BEEN debating forever the inability or unwillingness of Americans to engage in the kind of conversations, private and public, that could move the ball of race relations down the field for any appreciable distance. A reluctance to engage on the issue has been too easy to place in the context of legislative antagonism, willful intransigence, regional identity or intellectually-processed reactions. Science says that, thanks to an almond-shaped nucleic structure located deep in the temporal lobe of the brain, we may be more slaves to our physiology vis-à-vis race than we realize.

On a recent edition of Current TV’s “Viewpoint,” show host John Fugelsang and Democratic strategist Alexis McGill Johnson talked about the role played by physiological responses in perpetuating institutional racism and how that gets in the way of a real dialogue on race.

“We’re living in this world where the right [wing] has been very effective in suggesting that race doesn’t matter any more and that we live in a colorblind society,” Johnson said July 22. “So it’s very difficult for us to talk about race because we have a lot of anxiety in having that conversation.”

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The reason, she said, may be rooted less in sociology and more in physiology. “Part of your brain called the amygdala, [which] registers fear, increases. Your heart rate increases; your respiratory rate increases — all because we’re being primed to have these responses that are very quick, very unconscious, in a way that doesn’t reconcile with our understanding of where race is supposed to be.”

Johnson recalled there were tests revealing literal physiological changes of test subjects connected to monitoring equipment. “You can chart the anxiety growing in our bodies,” she says. “When race kind of drops into the conversation, on both sides — our executive brain shuts down. We go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It’s really a physiological challenge at this point.”

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THIS FIELD of study, of course, is nothing new. What Johnson related as an apparent discovery in July 2013 is the basis of experiments that go back several years. In 2007, for example, one study scintillatingly titled “The effects of skin tone on race-related amygdala activity,” examined the phenomenon using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, and came to the conclusions Johnson mentioned. The amygdala, the subcortical interpreter of potential threat based on social or emotional stimuli, has been studied for its possible connections to racial biases since at least 2000.

But such studies raise as many questions as they purport to answer. If dialogue is the basis for these conclusions, what’s the context of the conversation — or was that even part of the control protocol? What’s the gender distinction one from another? Was there a generational difference in reaction to race discussions — did very young children, for example, act the same way as adults?

If reaction to photographs is the basis for these conclusions, what happened when test subjects were shown photographs of blacks and whites together, in the same image — or was that even part of the control protocol? How did the data break down by cultural terms—are some cultures more susceptible to an outcome than others?

And finally, how do amygdala reactions navigate the increasingly diverse demographic composition of modern America, a place with blacks and whites as descriptively polar extremes — and Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and the populations ancestral of the Middle East dominating much of the rest of the national spectrum?

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Ironically, for all their provocative nature, such studies would seem to have a relatively limited value in our increasingly crowded American future. In a nation more diverse than ever, we don’t have the luxury of thinking only in black and white; amygdala studies that don’t venture outside that duotone comfort zone are feeding into their own obsolescence.

And anyway — none of this should be to let our country, our leaders or ourselves off the hook by shrugging our shoulders and assuming the nation’s longstanding racial divide is just a matter of physiology, and something we just can’t help.

There’s too much of our fractious racial experience that’s processed intellectually, articulated legislatively, to be just unconscious response. There’s too much of what we do, what we say and how we act about race that’s been deeply, historically rationalized to a fare-thee-freakin-well. You can’t blame 237 years of racial inequality on an almond-shaped thing in your head. There's more of the rest of the brain involved in that.

The United States of Amygdala? Only in part. We’re bigger than our base response to stimuli. We’re better, we’re more than the victims of unfortunate cerebral wiring.

At least, we’d better be.

Image credits: Amygdala illustration: Via Greenwich Academy Science Times Web site.

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