How the brain creates and combats prejudice | gray matter | Science | The USA Print

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Demonstration held last March in Barcelona on the occasion of the International Day Against Racism.
Demonstration held last March in Barcelona on the occasion of the International Day Against Racism.EUROPA PRESS (Europa Press)

Those attending the International Congress of Medicine held in Madrid in 1903 were surprised by an unprecedented communication that would mark the history and knowledge of mental processes and psychology. Everyone expected that the Russian physiologist Ivan Pávlov, the most famous of the participants, would speak there about his well-known experiments on digestion for which he would not take long (1904) to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But, unexpectedly, Pavlov devoted his speech to something else, as he presented, for the first time, what he called the “psychic reflex or secretion”, a promising finding from his laboratory that revealed the origin of much of the behavior of animals. and humans.

Pavlov had observed that the gastric juices of a dog began to flow with the simple observation of food, that is, before it was introduced into the animal’s mouth. His best-known experiment consisted of accompanying the food with the sound of a bell, which managed, after several trials and by itself, to provoke the dog’s salivary response. The prick of a pin, a slap on the back, smells, lights, sounds, etc., could also act, by association with food, as conditioned stimuli to salivate. The more times the experience was repeated, the more power the sound of the bell or any of those other stimuli acquired to evoke, by itself, the salivation of the animal. In rodents such as the rat, it is also observed that, if these same stimuli, instead of being associated with food, are associated with something negative or threatening, such as an electric shock in its legs, it is enough to present them later alone for the rat to show fear by staying immobilized.

People also associate positive or negative circumstances in our lives with the stimuli (other people, places, things) that were present when they occurred. That is why returning to the coffee shop where we received the news of the death of a family member can make us anxious, while the unexpected appearance of a dear friend immediately lifts our spirits. The brain makes these associations possible by forming consistent synaptic connections between neurons, generally in the cerebral cortex, that process these stimuli, and the hypothalamus or amygdala, centers related to vegetative (salivary) and/or emotional (fear or joy) responses. that they are able to evoke.

What is interesting here is that this associative mechanism also works for much more complex stimuli of a social nature, such as ideologies, races, cultures, political or religious leaders, gender or sexual orientation, social class, journalists and the media, or physical appearances of people. people, among many others possible. Thus, a certain politician or journalist can reflexively arouse rejection and animosity, while another with a different ideology can arouse interest and affection. The problem is that in order to establish these associations, the brain does not need a justified relationship between the stimuli and the reactions they end up provoking, that is, the neurons do not need a logical relationship between them, a real reason that justifies, for example , that a certain person or ideology provokes rejection or affection. For this reason, when that relationship does not exist or the one that exists is insufficient, the reaction we have ends up becoming a prejudice, that is, an anticipated feeling, generally hostile or negative, that does not have a true rational basis.

In this way, the feeling of rejection that Vladimir Putin can arouse in any of us today is well justified by his responsibility for the indiscriminate bombing of the Ukrainian population, but if we ask a racist why he hates blacks, a sexist why why he does not love women, a homophobe why he does not support homosexuals, a capitalist why he does not want communism or a communist why he does not want capitalism, it is possible that in many cases the explanations that we They are poor, that is, poorly founded, which will show that, rather than feelings that are acceptable because they have a rational basis, what these people have are prejudices.

Prejudice is one of the main sources of animosity and hatred between people and human groups, hate being in turn a feeling that, when established as a way of life, works as a stress that considerably damages the somatic and mental health of people, to the point that not even the “defeat” of the hated can compensate for the damage caused to the hater. Therefore, we must avoid hate like the plague and ask ourselves how the human brain can work to overcome the prejudices that generate it.

The bad news is that it is very difficult to completely eliminate the connections between neurons that were strongly established in the past, giving rise to prejudice. If, for example, in the laboratory the bell is presented many times without food coming after it, the dog can learn that now the bell no longer indicates food and stops salivating, but the old association is not eliminated, it is still in his brain , as disabled, and may unexpectedly reappear in the future. Prejudice, so to speak, is never definitively defeated. That is why the best way to combat it, more than (or in addition to) highlighting the irrationality that creates it, is to try to associate the same stimulus that causes rejection (blacks, homosexuals) to facts or circumstances of a positive nature ( the rights of the subjects, their humanity and bonhomie, their personal and social contributions, etc), trying to create in those who prejudge feelings incompatible with those of unjustified rejection. An emotion is only overcome by a stronger one that we can create by reasoning. Work, not always easy, that, in addition to family, colleagues and friends, always corresponds to the educational and information media in general, without forgetting that certain readings can also be the best way to combat prejudice, if not to promote it.

Ignacio Morgado Bernal Emeritus Professor of Psychobiology at the Institute of Neurosciences and at the Faculty of Psychology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is the author of ‘Corrosive Emotions: how to deal with envy, greed, guilt and shame, hate and vanity’ (Ariel, 2017).

Gray matter it is a space that tries to explain, in an accessible way, how the brain creates the mind and controls behavior. The senses, motivations and feelings, sleep, learning and memory, language and consciousness, as well as their main disorders, will be analyzed in the conviction that knowing how they work is equivalent to knowing ourselves better and increasing our well-being and relationships with other people.

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