Wednesday, July 31, 2013

White Privilege 2: Neurological Efficiency

I am so pleased today to bring a guest post from Heather Gratt of Gratt Wellness. Heather is a Life Transformation Coach who relies heavily on neurology and the science of neuroplasticity in her work.

Here, Heather offers a glimpse into racism based upon neurological efficiency, a double-edged sword for us humans. When we exist within a culture that trains our brains to believe certain assumptions, we divide humanity into those who are seen in a negative light and those who are seen positively.

White Privilege dictates that we (white people) do not have to worry so much that people's brains will be programmed to fear us.

Stay tuned for another, more personal piece from Heather at a later date.

The Racist Brain

- Emile M. Cioran

Years ago, I became fascinated with cognition. How do we learn, think, connect memories and make decisions? I attribute much of the curiosity to meeting my husband's grandmother for the first time. She had only the beginning stages of Alzheimer's Disease back then, and I was in awe by her ability to recall her own childhood - complete with succulent details and full of vigor. She spoke with such passion and vividness. Then, in the very next sentence, she would say, "I am sorry dear, what's your name again?"

Our brains are an intricate mass of distinct parts, regions and centers that literally, rewire every second to something different then it was in the prior second. The human brain is known to contain 100 billion neurons, each connecting to others to form trillions of networks!* Human brains are on a constant continuum; receiving data, storing data, transferring data and discarding anything deemed unnecessary. For the most part, this process is automatic. Amazing, right?

As you can imagine, with this expansive role and function, efficiency is key. In order to streamline some of the tedious processes, our brains rely on memory short cuts, called "prototypes" in the world of Neuroscience. This process relies heavily on characteristics in order to correctly organize our thoughts and memories into a category for later reference. For example, when I say the word seagull, your brain places that word into the mental category, bird. Without any further information, that connection is made. Think about a child's first visit to the beach. Standing, curiously gazing up at the white creatures flying above, this associative process is already beginning.

Short cuts were designed for survival. Suppose you live the life of a nomad, in the woods, secluded and cut off from the rest of the world. Your neighbors are mountain lions and you regularly find yourself fighting them off while hunting for food in order to survive. Would you not be grateful for your brain's short cut that associates mountain lions with danger? Of course you would. Our brains are a perfect machine; built for efficiency, survival and maximizing human function. The brain's entire purpose is to keep you alive and optimally surviving. Our brain creates a mental category for virtually everything in our environment. The key is knowing when to intervene in the brain's short cut process.

Suppose you are watching the evening news about a man who has reportedly raped and killed a young girl. The man has a history of gang violence and other crimes. Without having seen the man, what color skin does the individual in this scenario have? Be honest with yourself. Did the man have dark skin? As in the example of the seagull, our brains use short cuts, all day, every day and from the time we are born. In reality, you could not possibly know the race or characteristics of this individual unless you were an eye witness to the crime. Your brain sorted through it's many files of data and found the best category to match the description. That category was formed based on a continuous flood of data we receive either by choice or simply by being. If we are exposed via television programs, commercials, radio, social media, billboards, and even friends and family to a constant stream message: seagulls are amphibians, guess what will happen? That's right, our brains would neurologically categorize seagulls as amphibians. This makes no logical sense and yet it is a scientific fact. The same is true as it relates to our exposure to racial bias.

The good news is that we have the ability to decide when we want to use those short cuts. Like everything else, racism, hate and prejudice are absorbed through our interactions in the world and manifest in our thoughts. We have control over our thoughts and can revise associations simply through the willingness to do so. Understanding the survival function of your brain and making tweaks to the process, can easily change inaccurate stored data. Really, it's kind of like a spring cleaning, in which you remove anything that is no longer useful.

The moral of the story is, unless you are a nomad worrying about hungry mountain lions, I urge you to take a minute to interrupt some of your brain's shortcut and replace them with something more truthful. Provide your brain with a check and balance every once in awhile to ensure the short cuts are useful and in line with your true feelings. Exercise and use your brain to it's fullest capacity by questioning your assumptions, viewpoints and reasoning to ensure your thoughts are factually based and not formed by primitive prototypes that no longer serve you. As a final note, I leave you with these well-spoken words: "We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves." ~ Buddha

Reference: Sternberg, R. & Sternberg, K. Cognitive Psychology. 6th ed. 2012.

Heather Gratt

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