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Let's begin looking at the neurobiology of bias

In grad school, and afterward conducting research with undergraduate students, I spent thirteen years intensively studying interactions among neurons. We studied intact living systems, and we observed the resultant behavioral output when parameters within the system were changed. When I read the current research on bias, I can visualize precisely the neurons, their support cells, connections, limitations and their plasticity. I actually think the human brain is pretty simple. It’s just really hard to study properly. Many of the studies done on bias until recently have been psychological. But of course behaviors derive from neurobiological networks, and as technology becomes more advanced we really can suss out what the brain looks like under different conditions of ingroup and outgroup bias. People experience various levels of bias in different situations, and brains activate differently based on how strongly biases are experienced. I think We can become aware of our biases, and consciously choose to change. Let’s talk science!

The Bias Center in the Brain

The grey matter which coats the outside of the brain, front to back side to side, dipping into all these sulci and fissures, is the cerebral cortex, divided into three main areas, sensory processes information, motor commands movement, the prefrontal cortex has high level cognition such as decision making. And here is a connected area deep inside, the emotional center. OK so Your favorite sports team got a bad call, and your brain lights up, your ingroup bias on full display. If you were hooked up to an fMRI, we’d see, real time, that activation. There are different areas of activation, depending on whether you’re watching a sports team, or listening to a politician you don’t like, or deciding who to hire. All types of bias experiences seem to center here, this intersection among the prefrontal cortex, the emotional centers, and the motor cortex. Because there is this commonality, I wonder whether working to overcome one experience of bias might simultaneously help you to overcome others?

TED talks and their limitations

While preparing my TED talk in 2019, I realized why folks don’t usually discuss something as esoteric as the neurobiology of bias in the TED format. Topics need to be curated carefully to stay within the allotted 18 minutes.I decided to describe the superficial structures of the brain , describing the roles of the cerebral cortex in biased behaviors. The limbic system was included in early versions of the talk but were edited out for the final cut. This was a painful edit, because the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, clearly plays a pivotal role in bias. Two of the areas are most relevant here are the amygdala which represents fear and the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area which represent reward. Most decisions we make are influenced to a greater or lesser degree, by activity in the limbic system, the fear and reward being extreme drivers of human behavior. Biased decisions, much more so. This is not to say that the cerebral cortex is not to be discussed, as behaviors are carried out from this level. So, now that I have virtually unlimited minutes, let us give a more complete picture. Let us explore the connections among the various areas of the cerebral cortex and the limbic system..