People have viewed Trayvon Martin’s story through the lens of history, sociology and the law. But the lens of neuroscience may give us the greatest insight into this story and so many others.
Numerous neuroscience studies confirm that when we feel fear, threat or anxiety, small nodes in our brain called amygdala activate. Scientists have tested for this using a brain scanning process called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI. These nodes activate at a high level when we see spiders and snakes, but they can also activate when we see anything or anyone we believe to be threatening. Brain scan studies show that the amygdala activates more when a Caucasian person is viewing an African American male face than when viewing a Caucasian male face. Further studies show that amygdala activate even more when viewing a person with darker as opposed to lighter skin. It’s difficult to digest, but when looking at an African American man (or teenager) walking down the street, a Caucasian person’s amygdala may activate more than when seeing a Caucasian man walk down the same street.
Zimmerman said in his 911 call that Trayvon “looks like he is up to no good” or that “he’s on drugs or something” and he said Trayvon, “looks Black.” Zimmerman saw Trayvon as threatening though he displayed no threatening behavior. Trayvon did not have to act threatening because to Zimmerman, the threat lived solely in the color of his skin. His face, not his hoodie, created a reaction and a presumption that he was “up to no good.” It is possible that Zimmerman’s reaction was so strong that Trayvon’s efforts to appear as non-threatening as possible would not have sufficed. Perhaps Trayvon would not have been able to convince Zimmerman that he belonged in the neighborhood, was simply carrying skittles and seeking to hurt no one. Amadou Diallo in New York, Professor Henry Louis Gates in Boston, Oscar Grant in Oakland and countless others were equally unable to convince their shooters that they did not pose a threat. A professorship at Harvard did not mitigate the threat for Dr. Gates and lying face down while handcuffed did not mitigate the threat for Oscar Grant; and walking in a gated community holding skittles and an iced tea did not mitigate the threat for Trayvon.
The level of amygdala, or fear center, activation in the brain will be higher among those who have a higher level of unconscious or implicit bias towards African Americans - bias that they even may not be aware of). One of the most reliable measures of unconscious or implicit bias is the Implicit Association Test or IAT, which can be taken online. If a person’s level of implicit racial bias is higher as seen on the IAT, then the level of amygdala or fear center activation in the brain when viewing an African American male is higher as well. So amygdala activation levels match implicit racial bias levels. This is problematic because over 70% (and in some studies over 87%) of the Caucasian population shows implicit bias against African Americans on the IAT. Remember this is unconscious racial bias, bias that the holder may not know they have.
The view from neuroscience is even more disturbing when we consider the amygdala’s role in human aggression. The amygdala is where aggression is initiated in the brain. If someone is motivated to act aggressively because they see a threat, then racial bias will likely increase this effect. As a result, someone can see an African American man, decide that they are a threat because they are African American, and then become overly aggressive toward the African American man—and it all happens in the unseen realm of the brain.
But Zimmerman is not the only actor in this process. The minds (or the brains) of the police as they gazed upon Trayvon’s bloodied body are also at issue. If we believe the reports from neighborhood witnesses, it seems that even in the very moment when the police should have felt the greatest empathy for 17 year old Trayvon, they instead circled the wagons to protect Zimmerman by justifying his actions and dismissing any legal culpability that supported his arrest. The lack of empathy for Trayvon can be seen in the allegations that police failed to take witness statements, coached Zimmerman so that his statements would fit within the “stand your ground” law, filed false reports, and held Trayvon’s body for three days without contacting his parents.
Why didn’t the empathy arise? Studies show that we can have a strong physiological reaction to other people’s pain. A reaction called sensory motor contagion or pain empathy occurs when we see someone who we care about being injured. Just closing our eyes and imaging the injury can create this physical reaction in our bodies. In one study they simply showed a group of people three videos of three different hands being poked with a hypodermic needle. One hand appeared to be a Caucasian person’s, another appeared to be a person of African descent and the third was purple. As people watched each video the scientists measured the level of sensory motor contagion or physiological pain empathy. As Caucasian people watched the Caucasian hand being poked they felt a high level of pain empathy. As they watched the purple hand being poked they felt a small amount of pain empathy. But as they watched the Black hand being poked they felt no pain empathy.
It is possible that the police literally looked at Trayvon as he bled and felt nothing. At the same time it is possible that they looked at Zimmerman and felt empathy for his tenuous legal situation.
We can write Zimmerman off as simply a sociopath who set out to hunt Trayvon Martin – an outlier. Certainly most people do not hunt down young men with nine-millimeter firearms. However, we must recognize that implicit bias is widespread. So widespread that thousands of young black men have been presumed to be criminals, up to no good, or threatening. Their innocent behavior or minor infractions can be viewed as profound affronts. They are not all shot, but they can be more frequently disciplined, suspended and expelled from school, relegated to juvenile halls, jails and prisons, not hired, quickly fired or simply forced to watch as people cross to the other side of the street, lock their car doors or grab their purses when they walk by.
There are literally hundreds of neuroscience studies that bear out the biased reactions we have in our brains and how they affect everyday life. The killing of Trayvon Martin is profoundly senseless and no stack of scientific studies will make it make sense. But we can look through the lens of neuroscience to increase understanding and to find meaningful solutions.