by April Kemick
The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of
one’s own race, according to new research out of the University
of Toronto Scarborough.
This research, conducted by social neuroscientists at U of T
Scarborough, explored the sensitivity of the
“mirror-neuron-system” to race and ethnicity. The
researchers had study participants view a series of videos while
hooked up to electroencephalogram (EEG) machines. The participants
– all white – watched simple videos in which men of
different races picked up a glass and took a sip of water. They
watched white, black, South Asian and East Asian men perform the
Typically, when people observe others perform a simple task, their
motor cortex region fires similarly to when they are performing the
task themselves. However, the UofT research team, led by PhD student
Jennifer Gutsell and Assistant Professor Dr.
Michael Inzlicht, found that participants’
motor cortex was significantly less likely to fire when they watched
the visible minority men perform the simple task. In some cases when
participants watched the non-white men performing the task, their
brains actually registered as little activity as when they watched a
“Previous research shows people are less likely to feel
connected to people outside their own ethnic groups, and we wanted to
know why,” says Gutsell. “What we found is that there is a
basic difference in the way peoples’ brains react to those from
other ethnic backgrounds. Observing someone of a different race
produced significantly less motor-cortex activity than observing a
person of one’s own race. In other words, people were less
likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race
The trend was even more pronounced for participants who scored high on
a test measuring subtle racism, says Gutsell.
“The so-called mirror-neuron-system is thought to be an
important building block for empathy by allowing people to
‘mirror’ other people’s actions and emotions; our
research indicates that this basic building block is less reactive to
people who belong to a different race than you,” says Inzlicht.
However, the team says cognitive perspective taking exercises, for
example, can increase empathy and understanding, thereby offering hope
to reduce prejudice. Gutsell and Inzlicht are now investigating if
this form of perspective-taking can have measurable effects in the
The team’s findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.