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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 (31-40):
by Emerald Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:28 AM
1 mom liked this
And then title it as WHITE people lack empathy.

Quoting SuperChicken:

Interesting that a study purporting to say "The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s own race" would use only white participants in an area as diverse as Scarborough, Ontario (more than 65% not white).   And it's quite a jump to say that because someone's brain doesn't do back flips watching a person sip from a glass of water that they do not care when people are hurt or killed.

by A.Ham on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:44 AM

 I agree.

Look, I'd love to make this a white people problem, but my experience with people of all races/ethnicities suggests otherwise. 

I'm very curious if empathy is taught or genetic, though.

Quoting Sisteract:

IMO, some people just lack the ability to empathize, period. Perhaps these folks are short mirror neurons.


by A.Ham on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:53 AM
1 mom liked this

 Yes, I do.  The piece is disingenuous.

Quoting tooptimistic:

Dont' you find the study tainted and not reliable since they ONLY participants where white?


This research, conducted by social neuroscientists at U of T Scarborough, explored the sensitivity of the “mirror-neuron-system” to race and ethnicity. The researchers had study participants view a series of videos while hooked up to electroencephalogram (EEG) machines. 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.


by Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:53 AM
I believe this is an example of how people lose their ability to emphasize with others. Race should not have been a factor in this study.
by Platinum Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:54 AM
First of all & this is just my opinion, research/polls taken can't be reliable/facts if they only cover so many people or people of one race. Therefore, the research is bias & I suspect the person/persons doing this research is bias & racist. So, I never get these types of research, perhaps just to stir up problems. Just like what the media has done, it sells so why not. I do feel that in many White people or some other races like Asians, we perhaps have become desensitized to groups such as gangs killing one another. It's not a reflection of the whole race, but those that commit these senseless crimes. Just being honest here.
by JENN on Apr. 25, 2013 at 10:56 AM
1 mom liked this

One ginourmous eyeroll coming up......

eye rolling

by Silver Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 11:01 AM

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 Silver Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 11:05 AM
If you're going to do an experiment, and draw conclusions, you should at the very least cover as many variables beyond your control as you can.

A handful of white people only? Doesn't say much about anything but that specific group.

Quoting momtoscott:

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 on Apr. 25, 2013 at 11:07 AM

Wow. That's racist (the whole premise). Did you also believe everything written in The Bell Curve?

by Silver Member on Apr. 25, 2013 at 11:09 AM
More than likely this will be tried.
Which is why its super important as well to cover all the variables (other race reaction, gender reaction etc.) Before putting out a clearly biased as well as race baiting conclusion.

Quoting meriana:

Well of course people aren't going to react the same when they've been taught by their parents that certain people are somehow a lesser form of the species. Even if it's not directly spoken, kids see and emulate the reactions, etc. they see in their parents and others they associate with.

I really wish when they do these types of studies, they'd refrain from publishing the results because there are people out there who would use it as an excuse for really bad behavior towards others. Someday someone's going to say something to the effect of, I couldn't help it, it's the way my brain works and science proves it, and believe that will justify their bad actions.

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