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Looking at the Race or the Face

Ville Kokko

Posted on April 7, 2019 13:29

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The old idea that people of a particular ethnicity look all the same has a basis in how our brains process information, but there may be a way around it.

In his absolutely fascinating book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky describes a number of ways in which our brains and thereby automatic reactions are biased based on race. One of the effects is the following:

"[S]ubliminal signalling of race also affects the fusiform face area, the cortical region that specializes in facial recognition. Damaging the fusiform, for example, selectively produces "face blindness" (aka prosopagsonia), an inability to recognize faces. Work by John Gabrieli at MIT demonstrates less fusiform activation for other-race faces, with the effect strongest in the most implicitly racist subjects. ...

In accord with that, white Americans remember white better than black faces; moreover, mixed-race faces are remembered better if described as being of a white rather than a black person."

So basically, the old cliché that people of that other group look all the same shows in our brains, in that the part that recognizes faces doesn't even bother to activate as much when we think we're looking at someone of a different ethnicity.

Years ago, I read about some research about the same topic. I couldn't tell you the source anymore, but the basic idea was that the research had found that we don't recognize other-race faces as well because when we look at them, we concentrate on the "racial" features rather than the individual ones.

I thought this fascinating, though obviously not very nice. Then, an occasion came when I was able to test whether I'd be able to consciously do something about it.

Not too long after hearing about this research, I was sitting in a bus, in a place where I could see the faces of a number of other passengers. The passengers were rather diverse for Finland (though that never means anything compared to, say, New York). So it was a good chance to just... try to start looking at everyone's individual facial features instead of the racial ones.

It was quite a weird experience. Suddenly, I was seeing things differently. The faces of the people of other ethnicities didn't actually change, of course, but at the same time, they did for me. Just trying to focus differently made me see different things than before.

I can't generalize because I haven't read any research on this, but in my experience, this trick works, and quite remarkably. I've done it since, and one thing I've noticed is that I'll suddenly start seeing that, say, an Asian-looking person's face suddenly starts resembling some typical type of face I've seen a lot in the ethnic Finns that I'm used to. I have a clear impression that I'm seeing more.

For me, this is a really neat trick that both allows me to play around with the limits of how my brain functions – and to stop it from presenting the world to me in a stupid racist way.

Ville Kokko

Posted on April 7, 2019 13:29

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Source: WTOP

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