Category Archives: psychology

Are We Racists?

BMAI friends. The following ramble is my first cut at making sense of the grave role racial (and other) bias is playing in the world today. This was prompted by comments I see daily from my family and friends on social media. Thinking about the great lack of self- and group-awareness many of the commenters display, I turned my scope inward. How do my own innate, evolved biases slant me to take my group’s and my own privileges for granted and make invalid assumptions about those I perceive (subconsciously or explicitly) to be ‘the other’? I put this forward to start a discussion and hope you will contribute your own insights and references. Feel free to post comments or even insert questions, comments, or new text directly into my text. Of course, you can create your own new posts as well. Thanks.

Two Levels of Racism
1. Population Group Level
Racism is an expression of group dynamics. Consider two levels of racism. First, there’s systemic racism where conditions in a population generally favor one race over others. One race (or maybe a few races) has greater access to material and cultural influence in the population. This does not occur accidentally, but through the ongoing efforts of the dominant group to achieve and expand its controlling influence.
2. Individual and Local-Group Level
That’s where the second level of racism comes in. How a person perceives any group’s efforts to attain equal access and influence depends on whether the person is in the dominant group or the aspiring group. There are many ways individuals and their affinity groups perceive and act within the racially unequal system to maintain or change the racial inequalities. The group in power perceives efforts in its favor as good, appropriate, justified, patriotic, necessary, ethical, moral, and even (when there’s a shared group supernatural narrative) ordained, holy, etc. When a member of an out-group appears to support (or at least not outwardly oppose) the in-group’s dominance, members of the in-group view that as a proof that they are rightfully on top.
The group in power perceives any questioning of its dominance in the larger population as suspicious, dishonest, lazy (attempts to gain more access than is deserved), subversive, unpatriotic (or even treasonous), or (through the lens of dogma) evil, anti-God, etc. Obviously, racism (and other efforts to maintain inequality) is at work when these perceptions are acted out by legislators, law enforcers, prosecutors, juries, judges, presidents and their staff members, the private sector, and individual members of the favored group.
Members of a group with less influence perceive their questioning of the dominant group’s power in opposite terms from how the dominant group sees their struggle. Members of lower-access groups experience their quest for equality on all fronts as expressions of their inherent right–even necessity–to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” They see the efforts of dominant groups to control and exclude them as unjustified oppression by people who abuse the power provided them within a biased system that clearly needs to be changed.
On the first (population) level, racism is an aspect of the in-group/out-group dynamics that are present in all of us. Our ‘hard-wired’ programming is to subconsciously favor those we perceive to be more like us (in outward appearance, views, and culture) and subconsciously feel some degree of aversion and suspicion (and often fear) of those whose appearances, views, and culture vary from ours. Groups (through the actions of their members and leaders) use their power to slant social and economic systems to favor their own power and influence and to decrease the influence of those they perceive as not members of their group(s). When this natural bias results in one racial group having greater access to resources (education, healthcare, emergency services, and other public services; jobs; legislative influence; judicial equality; media visibility; etc.), systemic or structural racism is in place.
A takeaway of all this is that we are all racists, in the sense that the human brain has evolved complex social navigation functions that include strong biases in favor of one’s perceived in-group and disfavoring members of all other groups. To the extent we are hard-wired to perceive people who (as a category) look superficially different from us as somehow less safe or worthy of inclusion and power-sharing, we are innately racist. When we make the effort to become aware of, challenge, and ensure our racial biases do not influence our words and actions, we are moving toward a less bigoted way of being.

Poor understanding correlates with religious/supernatural belief

According to this article in Applied Cognitive Psychology. The summary follows. The entire article can be accessed at Sci-Hub.

“Although supernatural beliefs often paint a peculiar picture about the physical world, the possibility that the beliefs might be based on inadequate understanding of the non-social world has not received research attention. In this study (N = 258), we therefore examined how physical-world skills and knowledge predict religious and paranormal beliefs. The results showed that supernatural beliefs correlated with all variables that were included, namely, with low systemizing, poor intuitive physics skills, poor mechanical ability, poor mental rotation, low school grades in mathematics and physics, poor common knowledge about physical and biological phenomena, intuitive and analytical thinking styles, and in particular, with assigning mentality to non-mental phenomena. Regression analyses indicated that the strongest predictors of the beliefs were overall physical capability (a factor representing most physical skills, interests, and knowledge) and intuitive thinking style.”

Future discussion topic recommendations

Several of us met on Labor Day with the goal of identifying topics for at least five future monthly meetings. (Thanks, Dave N, for hosting!) Being the overachievers we are, we pushed beyond the goal. Following are the resulting topics, which will each have its own article on this site where we can begin organizing references for the discussion:

  • sex-related influences on emotional memory
    • gross and subtle brain differences (e.g., “walls of the third ventricle – sexual nuclei”)
    • “Are there gender-based brain differences that influence differences in perceptions and experience?”
    • epigenetic factors (may need an overview of epigenetics)
  • embodied cognition
    • computational grounded cognition (possibly the overview and lead-in topic)
    • neuro-reductionist theory vs. enacted theory of mind
    • “Could embodied cognition influence brain differences?” (Whoever suggested this, please clarify.)
  • brain-gut connection (relates to embodied cognition, but can stand on its own as a topic)
  • behavioral priming (one or multiple discussions)
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain

If I missed anything, please edit the list (I used HTML in the ‘Text’ view to get sub-bullets). If you’re worried about the formatting, you can email your edits to and Mark will post your changes.

There’s no such thing as a male or female brain

See this New Scientist article. Excerpt:

When the group looked at each individual brain scan, however, they found that very few people had all of the brain features they might be expected to have, based on their sex. Across the sample, between 0 and 8 per cent of people had “all-male” or “all-female” brains, depending on the definition. “Most people are in the middle,” says Joel.

This means that, averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features. “There are not two types of brain,” says Joel.

‘Entangled’ consciousness app approaching release

The Global Consciousness Project, Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS, for which I was once Hawaii state coordinator) and Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) are collaborating to release a smart phone app, Entangled, that aims to

  • Monitor your mind’s influence on your physical environment
  • Let you take part in large-scale consciousness experiments
  • Support ongoing development of a”consciousness technology” platform for developers and artists
  • Monitor global consciousness data in real-time

Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, let me explain that I gently stepped away from IONS after nearly 20 years because I did not see enough focus on or progress toward their stated goal—scientifically researching consciousness. I fully enjoyed their practice-oriented emphases on intuitive, embodied, mindful living, but while they remained ‘entangled’ in New Age phenomenalism and esoteric speculations, true scientific programs at many universities and research organizations have made steady, sometimes frustratingly slow progress (which is how science typically works). So, please don’t take this post as a tacit endorsement of any of the sponsoring organizations. They each raise interesting questions and do some work of scientific merit or promise, but (in my view) if you’re interest is in verifiable, repeatable, causally intelligible phenomena, you must stay vigilant of the unscientific chaff.

That said, the spike in non-random streams in random number generators immediately prior to the 9-11 atrocity remains one of the very few well-documented phenomena that could be taken to imply a correlation between a specific objective event and human transpersonal consciousness. In the view of the Global Consciousness Project, by collecting large samples of the right sorts of data, they can test their hypothesis that “Coherent consciousness creates order in the world. Subtle interactions link us with each other and the Earth.” As I understand it, they are extrapolating to the transpersonal level how an individual brain achieves coherent, self-aware states. Also, they would say we’re aware of the apparent precognitive 9-11 phenomenon because someone was collecting the relevant data that could then be recognized as correlated. The Entanglement app aims to collect more of such data while also providing users real- or near-real-time feedback.

If truly well-designed scientific research programs can show significant evidence of direct, entanglement-like correlations between objectively observable phenomena and consciousness (shown in brain functioning), I’ll be excited to learn about it. I think this is a monumental challenge.

Meltzoff on Piaget and theory-theory

Continuing the last post on developmental cognitive neuroscience (DCN), Meltzoff is one of the pioneers of DCN and here’s what he had to say in this ’99 article.

“There has been a profound, even revolutionary, shift in our theory of developmental psychology. The revolution began with challenges to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, particularly his views of infancy. As everybody who has attended scientific conferences, read technical journals, or monitored the popular media knows, modern research has discovered that young children know more at earlier ages than had been predicted by classical theory. These new findings led to the gradual weakening, and finally the collapse of, classical Piagetian theory.

“There is now a furious search for a new framework. An analogy can be drawn to the early part of this century when classical Newtonian mechanics was overthrown and physicists were searching for a new model. In our field, we know that the classical framework of developmental psychology, which has reigned for almost 50 years, does not work; we have crucial experiments that have uncovered surprising facts; and we have great excitement in both the laboratories and in society at large, as competing views of early human development are being thrashed out.”

In the above paper Meltzoff proposes his work supports theory-theory, described as “a combination of innate structure and qualitative reorganization in children’s thought based on input from the people and things in their culture.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about theory-theory:

“The Theory-Theory itself has a somewhat complicated origin story, with roots in a number of philosophical and psychological doctrines. One is the reaction against stage theories of cognitive development, particularly Piagetian and Vygotskian theories. Stage theories propose that children’s cognitive development follows a rigid and universal script, with a fixed order of transitions from one qualitatively distinct form of thought to another taking place across all domains on the same schedule. Each stage is characterized by a distinctive set of representations and processes. In Piaget’s theory, children move through sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational stages from birth to roughly 11 or 12 years old. Similarly, Vygotsky held that children move from a stage of representing categories in terms of sensory images of individual objects, through a stage of creating representations of objectively unified categories, and finally a stage of categories arranged around abstract, logical relationships.

“While Piaget and Vygotsky’s stage theories differ, both hold that early childhood thought is characterized by representation of categories in terms of their perceivable properties and the inability to reason abstractly (causally or logically) about these categories. Early childhood cognition, in short, involves being perceptually bound. While the empirical basis and explanatory structure of these theories had been challenged before (see R. Gelman & Baillargeon, 1983 and Wellman & Gelman, 1988 for review), Theory theorists such as Carey (1985), Gopnik (1988, 1996), Gopnik & Meltzoff (1997), and Keil (1989) went beyond providing disconfirming evidence and began to lay out an alternative positive vision of how cognitive development proceeds.”


Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

The Journal of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience is here and it’s open access. This Wikipedia article gives a good overview of this developing field.  And here‘s a Psychology Today article applying it to healthy adult development.  From the latter:

“The first guiding principle is that it is necessary to ‘quiet the limbic system’ (van der Kolk et al., 2005) to help emerging adults achieve a greater sense of safety. Quieting techniques facilitate attachments by promoting self-soothing and regulation. This is especially relevant when challenges are associated with trauma, anxiety disorders, and emotional/self-inhibitio­n. Emotional and cognitive learning cannot take place in a state of fear. This also includes protecting the brain from the neurotoxic effects of excess alcohol and substances, lack of sleep or nutrition, and the distorting effects of untreated psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis.

“The second guiding principle is the belief that it is essential to support the psycho-neurobiological development of a coherent self, an organized self, and a self-regulated self (Schore, 2008; Siegel, 1999; Gedo & Goldberg, 1973). This principle puts an emphasis on the processes of self-informed agency, self-directed empowerment, and an adaptive balance of vulnerability, collaboration, and boundaries for self-protection. This second pillar emphasizes the self-actualizing and motivational patterns of the developing individual.

“The third and last precept is drawn from neurocognitive modes of decision-making (Noel et al., 2006); therapeutic experiences of processing and problem-solving through emotional states of activation that occur in real-time within meaningful relationships are essential for achieving growth and change. Such experiences exercise and grow the networking between the limbic system and pre-frontal cortex which are naturally primed to sprout through emerging adulthood. Using mindfulness techniques such as “Reaction & Reflection,” while in relation, promote neurocognitive growth and, in turn, facilitate the further development of mindfulness, cognitive and executive functions, and competent self-governance.”

Collective Enlightenment Through Postmetaphysical Eyes

The paper can be found here. The abstract follows:

Enlightenment has had broadly different definitions is the East and West. In the East it is seen as an individual accessing meditative states that transcend the world of form in a metaphysical reality. In the West it is more about individual development to abstract reasoning, which can accurately represent empirical reality but is itself an a priori, metaphysical capacity. Enlightenment in either case is based on metaphysical individual achievements. However the postmetaphysical turn has questioned such premises, instead contextualizing both meditative states and abstract reasoning within broader socio-cultural contexts. Enlightenment itself has thereby been redefined within this orientation and is seen more as a collective endeavor that is collaboratively enacted.

Please recommend sources on the evolution of political impulses and thinking

In preparation for the March meeting topic, Your Political Brain, please recommend any resources you have found particularly enlightening about why humans evolved political thinking. Also, please share references about how brain functions lead to political perceptions. I’m assuming political perceptions result from more fundamental cognitive orientations, and that those arise in part from one’s genetics and in part from environment (during development and afterward).

Let’s use the following description from Wikipedia:

Politics is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance— organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (this is usually a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. (Wikipedia)

This description places political thinking in the realm of the brain’s/mind’s social processing.

Following are some candidate resources for our discussion preparation:

Edward’s recommendations

Mark’s recommendations