At MOMENT, we are interested in connections and the practical application of mindfulness. Today, we feature an interview we did with Marie-Therese, a graduate of Harvard & Oxford university with an interest in neuroscience, racial bias, and conflict resolution. She talks about the benefits & limitations of technology in overcoming racial bias. Together, we recognize a shared commonality in practice- whether it's the practice of meditation, or the practice of empathy.
First, can you tell us what you are up to?
For a really long time, I was interested in the neuroscience of conflict resolution and have studied it for years. Right now I’m looking at- how can we use virtual reality to induce long term behavioural change when it comes to ingroup/ outgroup interactions (so people of different race, or gender)- related directly to unconscious bias.
How can we use virtual reality to create scenarios where implicit bias can be decoded or attenuated. That was my original idea and there are loads of labs out there. For example- Mel Slater in Barcelona did a really interesting experiment where he put subjects in VR, but they were embodying an avatar of a different skin tone à in this case a darker skin tone, and when they look at themselves in the mirror, they move and the avatar moves but they are a different ethnicity. Then, they did the implicit association test afterwards and it showed a decrease in implicit bias. But then, there are other studies where they show an increase in implicit bias- it’s definitely an emerging field and I’m very much interested in it.
One question that often comes up is- how do you design these stories and experiences to create the best possible outcome? And that outcome can be reducing implicit bias or informing people about the reality (that these conflicts are just stories). With these results, researchers want to be able to measure these differences. One way is paper measures- behavioural changes or questionnaires. One way that I’m interested in, just because I’m in neuroscience, is how can we pair VR with neuroimaging. Can we measure this change with neurological measurements and machinery.
Most of the biofeedback that exists right now is: does your heartbeat change, does the sweat on the surface of your skin change. And that is a proxy for behavioural change. Maybe you’re having a fear response and your heart rate will go up. Maybe you feel empathy and love and there are different measures for that.
What I’m interested in is pairing VR (where you’re embodying an avatar of a different gender or race) and measuring the difference in your empathy or stress response using neuroimaging such as an EEG headset.
For example- what happens in the brain, visualized by EEG, when you have a threat response Trying to find threat response profiles and how do we code that, how do we visualize that in EEG data. When you find that, and you expose someone to a different immersive reality, you can measure- are they feeling more threat or less threat. It’s a simple idea but difficult to do. There are different labs doing various aspects of this and I just want to bring it together.
How do you measure that someone has increased in empathy or decrease in bias?
Right now we’re kind of in a middle ground. in terms of feasibility and the cost of things and what labs are actually thinking about are behavioural responses. But then there is a really article called Race Behaviour in the Brain- the role of neuroimaging and understanding compelx social behaviours (from a decade ago). They concluded that “however it is irresponsible to assume or conclude that neuroimaging results of a given behavior are more informed than a psychological result of the same behavior." And that is something I really agree with.
What I’m really interested in is what does neuroscience tell us beyond what psychology and behavioural responses already tell us. I think what it does is- You can map in the brain when you’re having a threat response or experiencing empathy- usually it’s the activation of the amygdala, a classic signal when using fmri. I used to be skeptical in the beginning but then I sat in on some lab meetings at the Harvard intergroup neuroscience lab and it was amazing to see how emotions can be visualized in the brain. For example, when you have information that is presented to you that you really don’t like, it is an affront to your identity. The same region of the brain where pain is encoded lights up. And it’s just really interesting. There is a really interesting experiment by Cunningham. They presented white subjects in the US with subliminal images of African American male faces. And it was subliminal- super fast, no way to be processed consciously. But there was still significantly different responses in the amygdala and that is correlated with a threat response.
The ingroup outgroup framing poses the question- why have we evolved this way? I think it is problematic to speak about it just in biological and neuroscientific terms because it tends to sanitize it. And I’ve been to some lab meetings or conferences where people talk about the evolution of ingroup favroutism and outgroup deregation. And its’ like “this is how we’ve naturally evolved and it’s natural”.
But then even the idea of what is natural is very much constructed. And there is another level to it. It’s one thing to say we’ve developed ingroup favouritism and outgroup deregation but it’s another thing to say- and therefore we are all racist. We’re all born racist and that’s how we’re born to be. Racism is something else – the tendency to like ingroups has been hi-jacked and as an institution perpetuated very consciously. This is no longer an unconscious bias- it’s been turned conscious. It’s been turned into policy and the way institutions work. That’s something I want to talk about more within the whole field of neuroscience of racial prejudice and unconscious bias.
Empathy is the solution to overcome unconscious bias. Is that a safe assumption to make? Say somebody has this experience, they try on these VR goggles and have a day long experience as someone else- are they, from that one experience forever rocked or changed by it or is this something they have to continue to practice? How do we start to implement change?
That’s a question I’m super interested in. What I keep trying to find in research papers is the long term transfer of the VR intervention. The same thing as if you have a cognitive intervention to increase memory- what is the long term transfer of that? All of these brain training games- there is no brain training game that has a long term transfer effect.
People argue that VR is extremely powerful- it’s very viscereal. But then, what is the long-term transfer. Racial prejudice or sexism is so environmentally based on what the media tells us for example. People get so tired of hearing that. Yes we can create a VR empathy machine and that sounds new and good and I think this can be a pat of the solution because 1.) it has neuroscience and 2.) it has technology but what’s more powerful is the boring stuff- who is represented in the curriculum of the child and what histories are represented and what policies are made and what stereotypes are represented in the media? Everyone says and everyone admits- that these behaviours and neuropathways elicited are culturally conditioned.
So yes, it would have to be a practice. The VR experience is something you come back to. I was reading this interesting article: The Problem of empathy games and the problem of VR for empathy… and there’s another interesting article critiquing the idea of empathy- why is there such an empathy hype right now? The problem for me, is that it kind of pathologizes it. “We can solve it with this medical intervention and we can come back for a reboot or another dose.”
I feel that questions of implicit racial bias require HUGE amounts of introspection and it’s a very difficult process to go through and requires the space in society to talk about it. We need to address shame- there’s so much shame around it. I feel like we live in such a shaming society. It goes very deep- like people’s identity.
I took a race relations class (I’m no expert) and I found it very interesting how in the US, the white identity is constructed in opposition to the African American identity or any minority. So it goes down to almost like the loss of self. I don’t know- it’s so much deeper than “wow we have all this neuroscience research and we have this VR experience and just with this intervention, we can solve/ it’s a mechanical thing and we can take it away.” I think it’s really useful and I think it could work and it’d be really useful to open the conversations. I think science backed conversations are more readily internalized or accepted- it’s almost a really good vehicle to get people to talk about racial prejudice and it wouldn’t be on its own. It would need to be a repetitive practice.
I use this analogy with meditation all the time- it’s almost something you have to check everyday, like brushinig your teeth. And maybe the VR experience is the kickstarter- like going to the dentist- doing the intensive, and it’s up to you to emotionally maintain your awareness. It’s that constant practice.
So for us, at MOMENT, why we had the MQ assessment was because we are trying to communicate to people that there is a physiological response to meditation that they may or may not be aware of and the hope is that by seeing that in real time, they can become more aware when they are not attached to the MQ.
That’s so well put! That’s exactly what we’re trying to do except switch mindfulness with implicit bias. What happens to the brain when you’re being biased, and how can we be more aware of it.
Yes! For us it’s recognizing stress and for you, it’s recognizing racial bias.
And what you’re saying about making people aware of how there’s a physiological response to stress- there’s this really interesting research paper around how you can self regulate by visualizing what’s happening in your brain. So in this experiment, once subjects saw when and how dopamine was released, they were able to trigger it in their brain. There is a whole field of visualizing what’s happening in the brain and then self regulating.
So, what are your next steps?
Everything I am interested in is how technology is an enabler and also an inhibitor, how technology currently is a cultural expression of historic inequality and how it can be used to address it, or not.
But most of all, I’ve realized that I just want my wellbeing. The important thing for me is just my wellbeing- my relationship with my family or my close friends. It sounds really cheesy- before it was everything else was above that (my studies, my potential career, and all of these projects) and now I just want to be well. If I feel low, I will just stop everything and go for a run or hang out with my friends. I also started meditating a lot in the past year!