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White people lack empathy for brown people, brain research shows.

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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.

by on Apr. 25, 2013 at 12:59 AM
Replies (21-30):
by Bronze Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 9:55 AM

I don't react to violence or medical crap on tv or anything else because we are desensitized to it. The writers of a drama build up a ton of suspense in order to get a reaction out of us because we are so desensitized. I worked in the medical field when I was in my late teens and I'm really not bothered by blood and gore and death because I had to make it "normal" to do my job. Wash up a corpse and dress and cover them nicely before the family comes in to see them? Sure, not a big deal. 

It doesn't matter what color someone who died overseas is. You mourn and move on. What good does it do to get all up in arms over someone who is already dead? Do you know how many people die in Illinois every day who share my features? Tons! Tons and tons of white people, just like me, with my eye and hair color, will die today! In my state! I can't stop it in my own local area so I guess I am not sure why I'm cold and heartless because I am not worrying about each individual person who will die in the world today. Thousands of people will die today! And tomorrow, and the next day...

I am sad when someone loses their spouse or their parents or their kids or their siblings or their friends or whatever. I am sad when a life is ripped away needlessly. I can't stop it from happening, I have no power on the global scale. There were 5 murders on the local news last night and I have no power to do anything. Why should I freak out over the death and suffering of every person on the planet when all I can do is spike my own blood pressure and be stressed? It isn't healthy.

by Bronze Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 9:57 AM
I understand and I have seen it. I don't believe this will help all prejudiced people though... Simply because not all prejudiced people will WANT to change. I myself hurt to see any innocent person hurt.... I recently visited a WW2 memorial park and museum up north, and I thought of those haunting images and things for two or three weeks straight almost. It led me to do more research on what happened here during WW2, because you don't learn about it in history class... My heart ached for the innocent lives lost here, and for the loss the survivors faced.
by Ruby Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:01 AM

I think it's pretty obvious that a lot of people see others as a monolithic "other" and see people they are similar to as varied and impossible to generalize.  

Just read the stupid posts on this forum lately.  

by Ruby Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:03 AM
1 mom liked this

I think it has more to do with distance, in the case of Iraq or something like that.  I feel sympathy but it's so far away and disconnected from my actual life that it feels like something on the movies.  I can't comprehend of IEDs blowing up my family or snipers or anything like that.  I don't think it has (or hope it doesn't have) anything to do with the fact that they are brown people.  It's just hard to fathom.  So I don't.  :(

by on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:03 AM

I think the research results are interesting, but not conclusive in any way.  It would be fascinating to see it replicated with men and women, other races, and Republicans and Democrats.  

by shellbark on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:13 AM
I'm going to eat Indian food today.
by on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:18 AM

I know, I was joking...

Quoting talia-mom:

And if you look, he is white.

You can have Wanda Sykes.

Quoting krysstizzle:

Pshaw, he's not white, he's Australian. 


Quoting talia-mom:


He is white.   You don't get him because we as a race are worse than the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.  

Quoting krysstizzle:

You can take Justin Bieber and Miracle Whip with you. But by god, you better leave Chris Hemsworth and pasta here with me. 

Quoting talia-mom:

White people should just kill themselves and take everything with them.   Apparently we are the worst things ever on the planet.

by on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:21 AM
At first I was like "replace white with white fundies"

Then the further down I got, I realized it was someone bitter because they got increasingly ridiculous.

Eta: I guess instead of white fundies I should have said racists, but its funny how I associate racists with white fundies even though not all white fundies are racist lol
by Runt on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:21 AM
1 mom liked this

Wow, what a generalization.  I will let all of my brown family members know that because I am white I can no longer feel empathy for them.  It is science.  Not my fault.

by Bronze Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:23 AM

There's a study to prove anything you want! And another to prove the exact opposite.

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