CRF Blog

This Is Your Brain on Nationalism

In This Is Your Brain on Nationalism for Foreign Affairs magazine, Robert Sapolsky examines the biology of “us and them.”

The human mind’s propensity for us-versus-them thinking runs deep. Numerous careful studies have shown that the brain makes such distinctions automatically and with mind-boggling speed. Stick a volunteer in a brain scanner and quickly flash pictures of faces. Among typical white subjects in the scanner, the sight of a black man’s face activates the amygdala, a brain region central to emotions of fear and aggression, in under one-tenth of a second. In most cases, the prefrontal cortex, a region crucial for impulse control and emotional regulation, springs into action a second or two later and silences the amygdala: “Don’t think that way, that’s not who I am.” Still, the initial reaction is usually one of fear, even among those who know better.

This finding is no outlier. Looking at the face of someone of the same race activates a specialized part of the primate brain called the fusiform cortex, which recognizes faces, but it is activated less so when the face in question is that of someone of another race. Watching the hand of someone of the same race being poked with a needle activates the anterior cingulate cortex, a region implicated in feelings of empathy; being shown the same with the hand of a person of another race produces less activation. Not everyone’s face or pain counts equally. [more]