As social beings, humans have the capacity to make quick evaluations that allow for discernment of in-groups (us) and out-groups (them). However, these fast computations also set the stage for social categorizations, including prejudice and stereotyping.
According to David Amodio, author of the review I am summarizing:
Social prejudices are scaffolded by basic-level neurocognitive structures, but their expression is guided by personal goals and normative expectations, played out in dyadic and intergroup settings; this is truly the human brain in vivo.
But what is the role of the brain in prejudice and stereotypes? First, let’s start by defining and distinguishing between the two:
Prejudice refers to preconceptions — often negative — about groups or individuals based on their social, racial or ethnic affiliations whereas stereotypes are generalized characteristics ascribed to a social group, such as personal traits or circumstantial attributes. However, these two are rarely solo operators and are often work in combination to influence social behavior.
Research on the neural basis of prejudice has placed emphasis on brain areas implicated in emotion and motivation. These include the amygdala, insula, striatum and regions of the prefrontal cortex (see top figure). Speficifically, the amygdala is involved in the rapid processing of social category cues, including racial groups, in terms of potential threat or reward. The striatum mediates approach-related instrumental responses while the insula, an area implicated in disgust, supports visceral and subjective emotional responses towards social ingroups or outgroups. Affect-driven judgements of social outgroup members rely on the orbital frontal cortex (OFC) and may be characterized by reduced activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a region involved in empathy and mentalizing. Together, these structures are thought to form a core network that underlies the experience and expression of prejudice.
In contrast to prejudice, which reflects an evaluative or emotional component of social bias, stereotypes represent the cognitive component. As such, stereotyping is a little more complex because it involves the encoding and storage of stereotype concepts, the selection and activation of these concepts into working memory and their application in judgements and behaviors. When it comes to social judgments, I find it useful to think of prejudice as a low road, and stereotypes as a high road (which recruits higher order cortical areas). For example, stereotyping involves cortical structures supporting more general forms of semantic memory, object memory, retrieval and conceptual activation, such as the temporal lobes and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), as well as regions that are involved in impression formation, like the mPFC (see bottom figure).
Importantly, although prejudice and stereotyping share an overlapping neural circuitry, they are considered as different and dissociable networks. Also, it is important to remember that areas such as the mPFC, include many subdivisions that may contribute to different aspects of the network. This is important because these within structure subdivisions are usually not readily identifiable in neuroimaging studies. Anyway, if you want to learn more about the specifics of these network and obtain real world examples of these networks at work, read the full review article (see below).
Researchers at Monash University have found physical differences in
the brains of people who respond emotionally to others’ feelings,
compared to those who respond more rationally, in a study published in the journal NeuroImage.
The work, led by Robert Eres from the University’s School of Psychological Sciences,
pinpointed correlations between grey matter density and cognitive and
affective empathy. The study looked at whether people who have more
brain cells in certain areas of the brain are better at different types
“People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get
quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad
scene. Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more
rational, for example a clinical psychologist counselling a client,” Mr
The researchers used voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to examine the
extent to which grey matter density in 176 participants predicted their
scores on tests that rated their levels for cognitive empathy compared
to affective – or emotional – empathy.
The results showed that people with high scores for affective empathy
had greater grey matter density in the insula, a region found right in
the ‘middle’ of the brain. Those who scored higher for cognitive empathy
had greater density in the midcingulate cortex – an area above the
corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain.
“Taken together, these results provide validation for empathy being a
multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive
empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry as well as
providing convergent evidence for empathy being represented by different
neural and structural correlates,” the study said.
The findings raise further questions about whether some kinds of
empathy could be increased through training, or whether people can lose
their capacity for empathy if they don’t use it enough.
“Every day people use empathy with, and without, their knowledge to navigate the social world,” said Mr Eres.
“We use it for communication, to build relationships, and consolidate our understanding of others.”
However, the discovery also raises new questions – like whether
people could train themselves to be more empathic, and would those areas
of the brain become larger if they did, or whether we can lose our
ability to empathise if we don’t use it enough.
“In the future we want to investigate causation by testing whether
training people on empathy related tasks can lead to changes in these
brain structures and investigate if damage to these brain structures, as
a result of a stroke for example, can lead to empathy impairments,”
said Mr Eres.
Archaeologists have digitally reconstructed a house in Pompeii to show what life must have been like for a rich Roman banker 2,000 years ago.
The Italian city was famously buried in volcanic ash —and frozen in time — in A.D. 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The vast ruins of Pompeii have been explored since the 18th century, and archaeologists today still flock to the site to uncover more of the city’s secrets.
Since 2000, the Swedish Pompeii Project has been working to document an entire city block, or “insula,” in close detail. This block included three big estates, a tavern, a laundry, a bakery and several gardens.
Led by Anne-Marie Leander Touati, an archaeologist at Lund University, the Swedish team has used traditional excavation methods as well as more advanced techniques like laser scanning and drone imaging to digitally reconstruct that block. Read more.
Something awesome for your Friday: Insulae! Or rather, Roman apartment complexes. Insulae means ‘islands’ and these particular buildings were known for being crammed full of people and highly flammable. The ground floor would have had shops while the upper floors would have been residences.
Mindfulness meditation produces personal experiences that are not readily interpretable by scientists who want to study its psychiatric benefits in the brain. At a conference near Boston April 5, 2014, Brown University researchers will describe how they’ve been able to integrate mindfulness experience with hard neuroscience data to advance more rigorous study.
Mindfulness is always personal and often spiritual, but the meditation experience does not have to be subjective. Advances in methodology are allowing researchers to integrate mindfulness experiences with brain imaging and neural signal data to form testable hypotheses about the science — and the reported mental health benefits — of the practice.
A team of Brown University researchers, led by junior Juan Santoyo, will present their research approach at 2:45 p.m on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the 12th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Their methodology employs a structured coding of the reports meditators provide about their mental experiences. That can be rigorously correlated with quantitative neurophysiological measurements.
“In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out,” said co-presenter Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses – clinically relevant and experience-relevant hypotheses.”
Now researchers are gaining the tools to trace experiences described by meditators to specific activity in the brain.
“We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.”
Structuring the spiritual
At the conference, the team will frame these broad implications with what might seem like a small distinction: whether meditators focus on their sensations of breathing in their nose or in their belly. The two meditation techniques hail from different East Asian traditions. Carefully coded experience data gathered by Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, show that the two techniques produced significantly different mental states in student meditators.
“We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”
The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences came not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also by employing two independent coders to perform standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating.
This kind of structured coding of self-reported personal experience is called “grounded theory methodology.” Santoyo’s application of it to meditation allows for the formation of hypotheses.
For example, Kerr said, “Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of mindfulness experience offered by the belly-focused group, we would expect there to be more ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity in this group across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called ‘gut feelings’.“
Unifying experience and the brain
The next step is to correlate the coded experiences data with data from the brain itself. A team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison at Yale University, including Santoyo and Kerr, did just that in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August 2013. The team worked with deeply experienced meditators to correlate the mental states they described during mindfulness with simultaneous activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). They measured that with real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging.
They found that when meditators of several different traditions reported feelings of “effortless doing” and “undistracted awareness” during their meditation, their PCC showed little activity, but when they reported that they felt distracted and had to work at mindfulness, their PCC was significantly more active. Given the chance to observe real-time feedback on their PCC activity, some meditators were even able to control the levels of activity there.
“You can observe both of these phenomena together and discover how they are co-determining one another,” Santoyo said. “Within 10 one-minute sessions they were able to develop certain strategies to evoke a certain experience and use it to drive the signal.”
A theme of the conference, and a key motivator in Santoyo and Kerr’s research, is connecting such research to tangible medical benefits. Meditators have long espoused such benefits, but support from neuroscience and psychiatry has been considerably more recent.
In a February 2013 paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Kerr and colleagues proposed that much like the meditators could control activity in the PCC, mindfulness practitioners may gain enhanced control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms. Those brain waves help regulate how the brain processes and filters sensations, including pain, and memories such as depressive cognitions.
Santoyo, whose family emigrated from Colombia when he was a child, became inspired to investigate the potential of mindfulness to aid mental health beginning in high school. Growing up in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., he observed the psychiatric difficulties of the area’s homeless population. He also encountered them while working in food service at Cambridge hospital.
“In low-income communities you always see a lot of untreated mental health disorders,” said Santoyo, who meditates regularly and helps to lead a mindfulness group at Brown. He is pursuing a degree in neuroscience and contemplative science. “The perspective of contemplative theory is that we learn about the mind by observing experience, not just to tickle our fancy but to learn how to heal the mind.”
It’s a long path, perhaps, but Santoyo and his collaborators are walking it with progress.
Stress-eating (emotional eating when you’re not really hungry or your body doesn’t really need any more calories) is a very common issue for people coping with anxiety and/or depression. Even in sub-clinical cases (where the difficulties with anxiety/depression is mild or transient) stress-eating can be a significant irritant and source of concern. There’s no quick-fix for this difficulty, but there are some easy practices that quite often can act to reduce troubles with stress-eating.
In terms of structural neurology, hunger and appetite appear to be mitigated by way of the amygdala, the hippocampus, the insula, and the orbitofrontal cortex. Unfortunately, these same structural components are also heavily involved in experience of emotion. And this may have much to do with how eating habits can be so often affected by feeling depressed and/or anxious.
Put simply, feeling especially sad or worried accidentally tricks the brain into thinking that the body is hungry. The involuntary aspects of our neurology are very susceptible to being tricked… and we can use that to our advantage. So, how do we trick our minds into thinking we are no longer hungry? Of course the best (and most annoying) answer is to eat healthy and get lots of exercise. Exercise gets the body to have a full parasympathetic reaction (an effective modulation of fight/flight stress). But lets face it, getting lots of exercise can be pretty difficult when one is feeling depressed and/or anxious. Suggesting that a patient get more exercise almost always earns me the ‘Donna face’ - that look from the patient that sarcastically says, ‘oh thank you for suggesting something that is completely and entirely unhelpful.’
There are, however, easier things you can do that tricks your body into feeling its had exercise… Here’s the easiest one: tense up the muscles in your arms and legs. Curl your arms up into your chest constricting the muscles as hard as you can.
Meanwhile, stretch your legs out, pointing your toes. Hold this constricted pose for a count of ten.
Then relax your muscles for another count of ten. Repeat three times and then let your body fully relax, taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through your mouth.
Doing this automatically causes a release of various hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain that are associated with an effective reaction to stress. It sort of completes a circuit that says to the involuntary parts of your brain that a fight-or-flight stress was encountered and effectively dealt with. In turn, a secondary wave of hormones are released that helps the body to feel relaxed. In other words, you can receive the neurological benefits of exercising without actually exercising. This process basically ‘chills out’ the amygdala, hippocampus, insula, and the orbitofrontal cortex. Which in turn, reduces appetite and switches off that insatiable hunger. Practicing this shortly after eating breakfast, lunch or dinner will even further enhance its effectiveness in terms of curbing your appetite.
A region deep inside the brain controls how quickly people make decisions about love, according to new research at the University of Chicago.
The finding, made in an examination of a 48-year-old man who suffered a stroke, provides the first causal clinical evidence that an area of the brain called the anterior insula “plays an instrumental role in love,” said UChicago neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo, lead author of the study.
In an earlier paper that analyzed research on the topic, Cacioppo and colleagues defined love as “an intentional state for intense [and long-term] longing for union with another” while lust, or sexual desire, is characterized by an intentional state for a short-term, pleasurable goal.
“This distinction has been interpreted to mean that desire is a relatively concrete representation of sensory experiences, while love is a more abstract representation of those experiences,” said Cacioppo, a research associate and assistant professor in psychology. The new data suggest that the posterior insula, which affects sensation and motor control, is implicated in feelings of lust or desire, while the anterior insula has a role in the more abstract representations involved in love.
The studies showed consistently that the anterior insula was associated with love, and the posterior insula was associated with lust. However, as in all fMRI studies, the findings were correlational.
“We reasoned that if the anterior insula was the origin of the love response, we would find evidence for that in brain scans of someone whose anterior insula was damaged,” she said.
In the study, researchers examined a 48-year-old heterosexual male in Argentina, who had suffered a stroke that damaged the function of his anterior insula. He was matched with a control group of seven Argentinian heterosexual men of the same age who had healthy anterior insula.
The patient and the control group were shown 40 photographs at random of attractive, young women dressed in appealing, short and long dresses and asked whether these women were objects of sexual desire or love. The patient with the damaged anterior insula showed a much slower response when asked if the women in the photos could be objects of love.
“The current work makes it possible to disentangle love from other biological drives,” the authors wrote. Such studies also could help researchers examine feelings of love by studying neurological activity rather than subjective questionnaires.
Sensitive? Emotional? Empathetic? It Could be in Your Genes
An fMRI study in Brain and Behavior by Stony Brook psychologists and colleagues provides evidence.
Do you jump to help the less fortunate, cry during sad movie scenes, or tweet and post the latest topics and photos that excite or move you? If yes, you may be among the 20 percent of our population that is genetically pre-disposed to empathy, according to Stony Brook University psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron. In a new study published inBrain and Behavior, Drs. Aron and colleagues at the University of California, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Monmouth University found that Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of brains provide physical evidence that the “highly sensitive” brain responds powerfully to emotional images.
Smokers who are able to quit might actually be hard-wired for success, according to a study from Duke Medicine.
The study, published in Neuropsychopharmacology,
showed greater connectivity among certain brain regions in people who
successfully quit smoking compared to those who tried and failed.
researchers analyzed MRI scans of 85 people taken one month before they
attempted to quit. All participants stopped smoking and the researchers
tracked their progress for 10 weeks. Forty-one participants relapsed.
Looking back at the brain scans of the 44 smokers who quit successfully,
the researchers found they had something in common before they stopped
smoking – better synchrony (coordinated activity) between the insula,
home to urges and cravings, and the somatosensory cortex, a part of the
brain that is central to our sense of touch and motor control.
put, the insula is sending messages to other parts of the brain that
then make the decision to pick up a cigarette or not,” said Merideth
Addicott, Ph.D., assistant professor at Duke and lead author of the
The insula, a large region in the cerebral cortex, has been
the subject of many smoking cessation studies that show this area of
the brain is active when smokers are craving cigarettes, said Joseph
McClernon, Ph.D., associate professor at Duke and the study’s senior
author. Other studies have found that smokers who suffer damage to the
insula appear to spontaneously lose interest in smoking.
general agreement in the field that the insula is a key structure with
respect to smoking and that we need to develop cessation interventions
that specifically modulate insula function,” McClernon said. “But in
what ways do we modulate it, and in whom? Our data provides some
evidence on both of those fronts, and suggests that targeting
connectivity between insula and somatosensory cortex could be a good
Neurofeedback and transcranial magnetic stimulation,
used to improve depression, are two treatments that modulate brain
activity. With the findings in this study, researchers now have more
information on where to further investigate, McClernon said.
have provided a blueprint,” McClernon said. “If we can increase
connectivity in smokers to look more like those who quit successfully,
that would be a place to start. We also need more research to understand
what it is exactly about greater connectivity between these regions
that increases the odds of success.”
Roman Baths, Wroxeter - the remains of an ancient city and castle which some people believe is Camelot
Glastonbury Cathedral, Somerset - where the mysterious graves of a large man and a woman with golden hair were discovered in 1191, labelled with the words “His iacet inclitus Arturius in insula Avalonia” (‘Here lies King Arthur buried in Avalon’)
Tintagel, Cornwall - The ruined castle where it is said that King Uther Pendragon met with the beautiful Igraine and conceived King Arthur