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Biologic racism – and how to get beyond it

When we see other people as “them”, outside the nucleus of “us”, we lose our empathy cushion, which is the key to our greater humanity. Here’s why that’s true — and how to get your caring mojo back for all people.

Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD, and his colleagues at the University of Parma made an important discovery while experimenting with macaque monkeys. Their brain neurons were mapped while the monkeys grabbed and ate an apple. Then the same set of neurons fired in the monkeys brains when they watched or heard another monkey eat an apple. These firing neurons were named “mirror neurons” and later MRI studies on human brains revealed this same firing phenomenon.

This has great import on both learning and social integration. Human mirror neurons are receptors that fire accordingly when they see other human beings as being “like me”. We experience high levels of empathy – becoming either elated or stressed out — when witnessing other people in high-stimulus situations. When watching sports activities, our adrenaline fluctuates depending on what “our team” is experiencing – you may be conscious of that – but did you know that inside your brain, your finger neurons clench as they grab a phantom ball and release as it is thrown?

How much “like me” does someone have to be like me to elicit that response? Unfortunately, race matters more than gender, age, economic bracket, etc. Our hard-wired empathy loop is broken when we have subconsciously decided someone is “not like me” on the basis of the color of their skin. Newer 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 color performing motor tasks.

Our brains trigger base responses. Our learning and intelligence determines how smartly we put those to work for us. Adaptive learning by proxy is critical to our very survival. As we evolved, we didn’t have to be eaten by a shark to learn that sharks are dangerous; we could hear the story of another’s misfortune and, through empathy, experience and learn from our own internal flight response.

This biological feedback loop allows us to subconsciously “practice” our own visceral responses. In this way, we learn from those subliminal physical reactions whether the stimulus was exciting or dangerous – something to try in the future, or something we’d like to avoid. However, if we break a connection with another person of our own race due to anger, studies confirm we no longer flinch when they are hit by a pop-fly baseball. We no longer exhibit a neural reaction to their misery, nor does that person’s success leave us with a little flutter of excitement.

This means that biology can and is overcome with experience. And that leads to the hope that we all can overcome our native biological “not like me” prejudice and increase racial empathy by teaching our brains that other people are “like me” in their hopes and dreams, fears and schemes.

The more we learn, then, about other cultures and people — and the more we assimilate others into our cliques and experiences — the more we will identify people of all races as being “like me”, a human being worthy of our empathy, admiration and support.

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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