Thanks to Fred Reklau for his letter (Nov. 3, Viewpoints) on Michael Romain’s writing. I, too, look for Mr. Romain’s column on page 2 or 3 each week, and I echo everything Mr. Reklau stated about Romain’s scholarly, incisive, and honest writing. 

The discussion of unconscious bias in his Nov. 3 column, “Let’s have a deeper conversation about racism,” was especially interesting to me, as I have thought a lot about the tribalism (us vs. them) that seems to be deep-rooted in human social behavior. It takes the form of racism, and many other “isms.” I appreciate Romain’s discussion in this column of the research on unconscious bias, a finding from psychology that goes a long way toward helping us understand the discrepancy between our avowed attitudes (“not a racist bone in my body”) and our actual behavior.

In psychiatry and psychology, going back to Freud, the deep influence that mental activity at an unconscious level has on attitudes, emotions, and behavior has long been recognized. More recently, research in neuroscience has identified the neural pathways activated by sensory stimuli signaling possible danger. 

One of the brain scientists Romain cites, Joseph LeDoux, reports that there are two routes for processing stimuli: the direct pathway (“low road”) from the thalamus to the amygdala, which is “quick and dirty,” and the cortical pathway (“high road”) from the thalamus to the sensory cortex which is slower but more accurate. The shorter, faster pathway is useful in providing an immediate response to danger, but, cautions LeDoux, “because the direct pathway bypasses the cortex, it is unable to benefit from cortical processing. … Its utility requires that the cortical pathway be able to override the direct pathway (LeDoux, The Emotional Brain).” When speed trumps accuracy, the individual reacts to a perceived danger without discerning whether a real danger is present. 

This knowledge of brain functioning provides a way of understanding the ease with which emotions and attitudes, positive and negative, can be activated without conscious awareness. This, in turn, leads to seeing how the fears, biases and rapid friend-or-foe categorizing that underlie tribal attitudes may be activated by even a slight perception of threat. All of this lays the groundwork for understanding how the bias plays out in relationships: one person’s fear response leads to distancing or acting negatively toward the other; the other responds in kind; a cycle is created that perpetuates the fear and stereotyping. 

Romain is right on target in pointing to the need for “nuance, complexity, and thoughtful rigor” in talking about race and racism. Just becoming aware of the degree to which we operate on automatic emotional reactivity is a big undertaking. Being able to stop … and think … before reacting can be the difference between a reaction that damages a relationship, and a thoughtful response that invites a conversation and leads to a little better understanding of one another. 

End of lecture.

Stephanie Ferrera is a longtime Oak Parker and a practicing therapist.

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