Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Amygdala -- the root of all racism?

Racial and gender stereotyping may spring from different roots
Past studies of kids with Williams syndrome have shown that those who are most socially fearless have an amygdala -- the primitive nugget deep in the brain from which the sensation of fear springs -- that doesn't function properly.

For the rest of us, the amygdala does perform normally. And the primitive fear it pumps out at the sight of a member of an "outgroup" representative can be extinguished only if our prefrontal cortex -- the seat of reason -- steps in and overrides it.

People with Williams syndrome have a genetic deletion that has a wide range of effects, including narrowed blood vessels, developmental delays and -- oddly -- love of music and extreme friendliness.

In a study reported in the journal Current Biology and published Monday, German and French researchers report on a heretofore undiscovered behavior pattern that also unites people with Williams syndrome: They do not seem inclined to stereotype those of minority ethnic or racial groups in the insidious and generally unacknowledged ways that most of the rest of us do.

The researchers relate the absence of the impulse to racially stereotype to the hallmark personality trait of those with Williams syndrome: the same lack of social fear or wariness that makes individuals belonging to this special population sometimes unnervingly friendly to strangers. And the researchers suggest that this says something interesting about racial stereotyping: that it is based in fear and is a primitive impulse that helps us hold those who are identifiably different from us -- the "outgroup" -- at arm's length.

Interestingly, the Williams syndrome kids -- half male, half female -- did engage in gender stereotyping.

To author Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg's Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany, this suggests that gender stereotyping springs from a different source than racial stereotyping.

Rare disorder erases all social anxiety
While the first human population to demonstrate race-neutrality is missing critical genes, "we are not saying that this is all biologically-based and you can't do anything about it," Meyer-Lindenberg said.

"Just because there is a genetic way to knock the system out, does not mean the system itself is 100 percent genetic," he said.

The study does show, however, that racism requires social fear. "If social fear was culturally reduced, racial stereotypes could also be reduced," Meyer-Lindenberg said.

Due to the present study, we now know that "gender and race are processed by different brain mechanisms," Meyer-Lindenberg said, although those involved in gender are less understood.

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