What’s Going on In Our Brains?

The Broad Overview

This first lesson is a broad overview of the main topics and concepts explored through the course.  

After watching the video below, you’ll see a general explanation of how these concepts relate to each other.

Note: The video moves very quickly, so subtitles may be helpful.  The audio text is also included on this page after the video.

"How Our Brains Respond to People Who Aren't Like Us"

Are we dehumanizing people who are part of our outgroups today?

We are the most evolved life-forms on earth, but we still cling onto our evolutionary history.

Human are tribal creatures, we roll with cliques who are like us, and consider people who aren’t within our tribes as an “other”.

Those tribal lines through our evolutionary history have transformed from hominids to new lines like race, religions, politics, Hogwarts houses, etc..

Think about sports fans, then root for their team no matter what. 

People who root for that team are their “in group.

Anyone who is not a fan of that team is an “out group.

We all contain multiple in-groups and, in turn, multiple out-groups, #intersectionality

Implicit Association Tests show that more often than not, people align more closely with their in-groups over their out-groups.

We tend to view out in-groups more favorably.

We cooperate better with members of our in-group and often root for them no matter what.

A 2005 study showed that sports fans a soccer game would be more likely to help an injured spectator wearing the same jersey as them rather than the other team.

How might this apply to other two-sided groups?  Any “group switching” looks like a betrayal.

For the out-group, think about how aliens are treated in movies.  Always viewed as interlopers, invaders, infringing upon our way of life in a threatening way.  We act the same way to non-aliens in our human out-groups.

We typically view our out-group as the same, homogenous, because it is easier.  All Warriors fans are like ____, are Muslims are like _____, all Slytherins are like _____. 

This phenomena not only occurs quickly, unconsciously, and automatically with our amygdala and insula, but research suggest it starts very early in our cognitive development

Furthermore, pictures of homeless people and drug abusers have been shown to activate the insula which also activates in response to disgusting tastes and smells.  But some researchers also believe it can be linked to an ethnic or out-group marker.

Humans tend to dehumanize anyone who doesn’t adhere to what their idea of normalcy is.   Calling people animals, demons, super predators, devils, etc., is a way to denote that someone is awful to the point of being non-human.  And this is more pervasive and seen more often than we like to admit.

A psychologist named Dr. Nour Kteily found a way to quantify dehumanization by showing mostly Caucasian-American subjects a photo of the ascent of man, and asked them to rate different ethnic groups on how evolved they are.  A lot of people said every group was 100% evolved.  Unfortunately some people viewed Mexican immigrants, Arabs, and Muslims as the least evolved.  This is scary because they are human, and if people are looking at them as less than human, then it is easier to ignore their humanity.

With another politically divisive era upon us where lines are drawn in the sand and debasing and damaging rhetoric will be tossed left and right, how do we break this trend of dehumanization? 

Research suggest individuation, education, and stopping the spread of misinformation.

Looking at our out-groups as monolithic, generalized, disgusting people is not the move, and it can be reversed.  Studies suggest that looking at our out-group members as individuals allows them to be seen as solo people and not just part of an “other” group, helping break the cycle.  Not blaming a whole group for single incidents and using blanket statements like “the Blacks,” “the Muslims,” or “the immigrants,” helps reinstate humanity in those people. 

Taking the steps to learn about other cultures, religions, races, etc. isn’t hard; find and celebrate difference while sharing common ground.

And stop the spread of misinformation.  No more fake news. 

Dr. Kteily found evidence that his White subjects wouldn’t dehumanize Arabs and Muslims if they read an article about how Muslims actually admired American values; positive, truthful, representation matters and can help with social perceptions of different groups as well as push us along on our social cognitive evolution.   

Key Terms & Concepts

The “How Do Our Brains Respond” video identifies a number of key concepts which will be defined and discussed as you move through the course.  You may already have an implicit understanding of terms like in-group/out-group, dehumanization, and implicit bias.

A key learning objective for this course is to evaluate how these terms relate to and affect our own cognitive processes.  To do this, we’ll explore a number of “cognitive biases,” that expand on the video you just watched, to see how we construct views and opinions of the “other.”    


Cognitive Biases – the codex

A useful tool to use and explore, related both to this course and many other aspects of human cognition, is the Cognitive Bias Codex (see below).  

This Codex breaks down hundreds of different biases in the categories of Memory, Meaning, Information, and Action.  These are broken down further into more distinct and useful groups.  We’ll be using a few of the biases exhibited in the Codex throughout the course.  We only cover a few, but the entire Codex is very useful to explore as a whole.

Feel free to click around and explore the Codex before moving on to the rest of this lesson and the course.

Note: to zoom in on the Codex, click the button above, then click the “zoom” icon (see the image next to this text).

Before the next lesson:

Before you move on, we’ll do a quick Implicit Association Test.  In the next lesson, we’ll explore what Implicit Association means.  But first, click on the link below, and take at least one of the Implicit Association Tests on the website (this takes around 5-10 minutes to complete).