Just Read: Unconscious bias is like an iPhone version 20 inside your brain, and walking helps manage it (?)

The construction of our social environment can be informed and adapted to take into account implicit attitudes that potentially run counter to our conscious objectives and beliefs.

Still continuing, and just about done researching material for the 2nd Annual Kaiser Permanente LGBTQI Health Symposium.

1976: Zilog Z80 Clock Speed 1.77 MHz (image in public domain)

2013: Apple A7 Clock Speed 1.3 GHz (image in public domain)

The two microprocessors on the left represent the change in computing power over a generation.

The first, the Zilog Z80, powered the Radio Shack Model TRS-80, one of the first personal computers available for purchase. Note, in the 1981 TRS-80 catalog, the inclusion of people of different backgrounds using the computers – +1 RadioShack.

The microprocessor below it is the Apple A7, famously used in the iPhone 5s. The difference in computing power between the big gray box and the handheld touch screen slab, of about 1000 is a stunning testament to human engineering.

The human brain, still the best application ever created

Contrast that with our conscious and unconscious processing capabilities:

  • Conscious brain: 16-50 bits/second
  • Unconscious brain: 11 million bits/second

That’s a 687,500 speed difference. The brain still wins.

This paper reviews what is known about unconscious bias and neurochemistry, looking at studies using that machine that I’d one day like to have in my living room – the functional MRI (I only say that because currently the fMRI is used more to sell unhealth than health, but that’s another blog post (What we are up against in motivating health: Cognitive Science, Sex and advertising | The Economist | Ted Eytan, MD)). And, the answer is that there are different pathways for activation of the unconscious system than for the conscious one.

Researchers test this by showing test subjects the faces of Black or White people, either for short undetectable bursts (“subliminaly”) or longer, visible bursts (“supraliminaly”), and in a combination of familiar, strangers, famous, not famous. What they find is that the amygdala lights up rapidly in people who are shown Black faces subliminally, and not as rapidly when people have time to process the face.

The short version of all of this is that the brain is capable of mounting an automatic emotional response that’s undetectable, as well as mounting a conscious, suppressive response, if given time to respond. I don’t want to violate copyright by reposting the article’s images, but they are worth a look.

These automatic fear-based responses are blunted in people who have been involved in interracial relationships. They are also blunted in people who are asked to focus on a “person” rather than a “category,” such as a person’s age.

This ability to examine the contents of our own minds and manipulate them is uniquely human.

The above is a benefit and a responsibility. An unexamined mind is one that can direct behavior that’s directed against others in unhealthy ways, without even being aware of it. And yet, knowledge is power, and these responses are malleable, so the frustration people might experience in teaching tolerance may be lessened through the use of other techniques supported by biology. It’s always good to know that it’s just biology.

Wait, is this connected to walking (or any exercise), too?

Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition

Your brain on walking (View on Flickr.com)

In the worlds colliding section, I happened to notice the emphasis on the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (diPFC) in the article. These are the same actors I have previously portrayed in looking at walking. It turns out that this same system, that of the ACC responding to threats and the diPFC exerting control, is the same system that’s bolstered by exercise.

I went back and re-read the paper that generated this image, (Graphic: Your Brain on Walking | Ted Eytan, MD) and sure enough:

Collectively, convergent evidence supports the view that higher levels of physical activity correlate with increased top-down control, which could be mediated through more efficient activation of the ACC, resulting in better performance during tasks requiring executive control.

So in addition to connecting with people different than ourselves, walking with them, or exercising at all improves the functioning of the system that helps our world learn to love better. I have no evidence to prove that this is the case, but it’s a fascinating connection nonetheless. The brain rocks. Let’s walk.


Ted Eytan, MD