We are shocked as we watch the arrest and abuse of thousands of protestors who are exercising their civil liberties while none of the Wall Street barons who committed the fraud that led to the economic crisis have been arrested. What causes the power brokers to send the police to attack peaceful demonstrators in parks and universities but leave untouched those who have wreaked violence on our nation’s economy? Some claim this is the manifestation of simple selfishness or greed, but the answer may lie elsewhere. The answer may be in neuroscience.
In a 2006 Harvard study scientists presented a group of male students with two photographs of Caucasian men. The first photo included a caption that described the person in the picture as a fundamentalist Christian, a Republican from the Midwest, and conservative. The caption of the photo of the second man described him as not particularly religious, a Democrat from the East Coast, and liberal. Likewise, female students were provided with pictures of two Caucasian women, one who was described as more conservative and the other as more liberal. The students were then asked to choose the person they believed to be most like them.
Once their decisions were made, each student was then asked a series of questions about the person in the photo they chose, questions that required the students to predict how they believed the person would behave in certain circumstances; to determine each person’s preferences; and to assess each person’s habits.
As each student answered the questions, a scan was taken of his or her brain. The scientists noticed that when the students were engaged in answering questions about the person in the photo he or she deemed most like him or herself, a very specific part of their brain activated—the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. But when they were asked the identical questions about the person in the photo they decided was NOT like them, a different part of their brain, the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, activated.
Finally, when the subjects were asked the same list of questions about themselves – when they were asked to predict their own behavior; to determine their own preferences; and to assess their own habits, they used the ventral medial prefrontal cortex – the same part of the brain that they used to judge the person in the photo who was more similar to them.
What does this mean?
Neuroscientists suggest that the ventral medial prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that we use to encode people as social beings having more human emotions, possibly seeing them as more human. Neuroscientists further suggest that the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain used to attribute colder aspects of mental states to people, such as knowledge or beliefs. Other neuroscientific studies have shown that when we see people as belonging to socio-economic outgroups, we may also encode them as less human and fail to attribute complex human emotions to them at all. We may show less empathy for those who we encode as less human. We may not give them the benefit of the doubt when they make mistakes. We may fail to understand their needs and we may process their views and opinions with less rigor.
To be clear, several of those in the 1% have stood firmly in defense of the 99%. Would a thorough review reveal that many of these individuals once belonged to the 99% and so do not see themselves as so disconnected – so dissimilar from them?
But what about those in the 1% who state their vehement objection to the complaints of those who have been crushed by the economic crisis? Are these members of the 1% using a different part of their neuroanatomy to make decisions about the rich verses the poor, the have’s verses the have not’s? Do these members of the 1% use the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex to judge the 99%, relegating the 99% to the realm of less human? Can they more easily conclude that the protests are invalid and the message inane? If so, then they can comfortably call for the protestors to simply bathe and seek employment, but they cannot call for the Wall Street barons to clean house and provide jobs. If they see the 99% as less human then they may view the children of the 99% as less human as well. Child labor laws that protect them can be abolished and they can take up the yoke to work as janitors in their own schools.
If neuroscience provides us insight into politics, power and protests then the answer to our nation’s divide is not simply to change hearts and minds but to change brains.
Kimberly Papillon, Esq. is a graduate of Columbia University School of Law and lectures to nationwide on the neuroscience and psychology of legal and judicial decision-making.