An Integrative Psychiatrist on how we create racism, how our brains work on racism, and how we can train our brains to break the cycle.
Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white Ferguson police officer.
The recent case of Eric Garner, a Staten Island father killed because of a an excessive chokehold is yet another example of police conduct in America that has sparked debate, controversy, civil unrest and attention to an issue that doesn’t seem to go away. The relationship between the African American community in this country and law enforcement officials has been and continues to be a tenuous one.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FEAR
The psychology of fear gives us a window into understanding some critical dynamics that may be at the core of the issue. Brain science allows us to understand some crucial things about the fear response and stereotype patterns in humans that may be leading to overreaction and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officials.
The brain is complex organ made up of over 100 billion nerve cells that communicate with each other to govern how we feel, think, and act. Fear is a process that starts in our brain with a perceived threatening stimulus, followed by a cascade of events that lead to a biologically-based instinctual fight or flight response.
From an evolutionary perspective, the fight or flight response is the body’s inherent mechanism to ward off danger and protect ourselves, so we can either run or fight for our lives. It was, and is, critical to our survival. What is interesting about fear is that it is inherently an unconscious process, which means that we don’t consciously dictate nor will it. It is out of our control and it just happens.
THE TWO PATHS OF FEAR RESPONSE
There are two paths involved in the fear response: The Low Road and the High Road. The low road is expeditious, reactionary, and imprecise. It reacts first and asks questions later. It initiates the fight-or-flight response which leads to some sort of action: stay, run, pull a trigger, shoot once, or shoot a hundred times.
The High road takes much longer and involves a deeper level of information processing, leading to a more precise interpretation of events. It asks valuable questions like: Have I seen this before? What does it mean? Are there alternative ways for me to see this situation? Is my fear appropriate or logical?’ It can then tone down or shut off the fight-flight response accordingly and tell the brain to stop overreacting, calm down, and correct an over reactive behavior. When a human being is confronted with fear, both processes are happening simultaneously.
But law enforcement officials, when feeling threatened and confronted with fear, don’t have several minutes. They usually have only seconds to react, make, and execute a decision. When many shootings occur, law enforcement officials are operating at the low road fear response. They don’t have the time to reason, rationalize, intellectualize or engage in the high road pathway (literally) Which means what’s happening in those seconds is a highly instinctual reaction.
WE HAVE TO ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM
When we look closely at what is going in this country with the Ferguson case being one of numerous examples, we should be looking deeper into why there is a pattern of consistent overreaction, impulsivity, and poor decision making on the parts of law enforcement officials, usually within a very short time frame of seconds to minutes. Yes of course, with any human altercation the fight-flight response is fully active. That would be the natural neurobiological response to any perceived threat. Police officers are in a position to deal with perceived threat and harm daily. But is there an exaggerated fear response that leads to an overreaction?
The problem is ultimately rooted in deeply ingrained stereotypes that are largely coming from the unconscious and that’s what we need to address. In order for these ingrained stereo-types and fear-based responses to begin to change, we have to deconstruct what provokes fear. We have to change what our minds perceive as the trigger of our fear in the first place.
Noam Chomsky,a prominent respected American philosopher, cognitive scientist political commentator and activist, recently stated in reference to these current events that indeed America “is a very racist society” in which black life has been criminalized. So to begin to de-criminalize African Americans we must first start with our own minds.
“Perceived Unrelatedness” – Is our inherent need to feel safe with who we identify as our own people and we need to feel that we are included in that group. Our brains are trying to constantly gauge if a stranger is “friend’ or “foe” and if we encounter anyone that is perceived to be different then our “in group”, the amygdala automatically perceives as threatening and this leads to an overstimulation of the fight flight reaction. Studies have also shown that this can play a strong role in how much “empathy” we can feel when seeing someone in pain. The more strongly we perceive someone as part of our “in group”, the more compassion we seem to have.
TO BREAK STEREOTYPES WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND HOW THEY’RE CREATED
Stereotypes are nothing more than neurocircuits that have been conditioned and repeatedly reinforced, starting with even a single isolated experience or image and strengthened by a multitude of experiences or information we receive directly or indirectly from the world around us through language, and information conveyed through images imprinted in our brain.
Images are extremely powerful. They help us to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. We live in a society where we are constantly inundated with images from social media, music, television, movies, videos and commercials. We exist in a culture of racism that no one wants to honestly acknowledge. Prejudice and discrimination is a reality. Several studies have shown that although most people would deny having racial biases, almost all of us to some extent are influenced by conditioned racism.
REPROGRAMMING THE FEAR RESPONSE
The interesting thing is that the neurocircuitry of the fear response can be conditioned. It is conditioned. That is why one can have an irrational fear of dogs because of one bad experience. That’s all it takes. The amygdala, the part of our brain that decodes emotions, determines possible threat, and stores fear memories, will associate the sight of something with an emotional response: i.e. fear or pain.
Is that logical? No. But it’s the way our brain works. These are culturally learned negative associations about a specific community. Images and stories about “them”. It doesn’t help when these irrational fears are reinforced by our peers ,colleagues, social groups, family, friends and authority figures. It doesn’t make what we believe more true .it just rationalizes it in our own minds. It makes it ok. Racism is learned phenomena. It is taught. Human beings are not born with stereotypes, biases consciously known or unknown, racism or hate within them.
HITTING RACISM WHERE IT LIVES
So how do we then deal with the source of racism? How do we on a fundamental level begin to work towards equality and peace? The only way to deconstruct the neurocircuitry is by challenging it. We must start with being conscious of our responses to fear and paying attention when it is evoked. It is repeated interactions and experiences with a certain “image” or group of people that will open one’s mind to very simply understanding that, for example, not every black male is someone to be fearful of, or is someone who is more likely to hurt you. This takes education; it takes a conscious effort by media, social media, commercials, movies, and television to portray alternative images of people beyond preconceived stereotypes.
Further fundamental changes need to happen at the basic level of law enforcement training — where we should identify and screen for inherent biases and begin to deal with them before they escalate to more tragedies. All human beings have inherent biases, conscious or unconscious. We can’t fix what we don’t acknowledge. Law enforcement training should include mandatory community-based programs that involve exposure to local communities. By exposure, I don’t mean driving in a police car as the observer and outsider in a community. It means getting into the communities and truly interacting with people, so that they can begin to connect to the humanity of the “other,” see beyond the visual, and start to deconstruct stereotypes.
RACISM IS DEADLY, BUT WE CAN STOP THE KILLING
As Nelson Mandela said “We slaughter one another in the stereotypes and mistrust that linger in our heads.” We only mistrust that which we do not know or understand. For each of us to do our part in helping to change what’s happening around us we have to begin by cultivating our capacity to not be afraid and to consciously keep our minds open. It will take interacting on a deeper level with people who don’t necessarily look like us for minds to really understand that visual “A” doesn’t always equal conclusion “B”, and that a certain image is not necessarily more dangerous then the next.
When we build friendships, merge and integrate communities, and socialize with people that don’t look like us, we take active steps to deconstruct what has been constructed. Through repeated positive interactions, education, and images that challenge the status quo, eventually over time we can begin to decode the power of ingrained stereotypes and disempower the perceived stimuli of fear.