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Focus on Faculty: Roger Knowles

The professor of biology and neuroscience discusses his scholarship on unconscious racial bias

October 2022 – Drew University Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Roger Knowles is kicking-off our new Focus on Faculty series where we’ll highlight the many accomplishments, research, and scholarship of Drew’s incredible faculty members.

We sat down with Knowles to discuss his recently published article in Discourse Magazine, “Do Our Brains Contribute to Racism?” Read on to learn more about his fascinating neuroscience scholarship on unconscious racial bias.

What is unconscious bias?
A neuroscientist would consider any brain activity as unconscious processing where an individual is not self-aware or occurs before someone is aware. A rough guess would be this represents 95 percent of our brain activity. For example, you are conscious of the words that you are reading, but before you recognize the words and assign meaning to them, roughly a quarter of a second of unconscious brain activity has occurred to allow you to recognize them. Bias simply refers to brain activity being different when processing similar types of stimuli. 

Imagine eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream and then a bowl of steamed broccoli. Even though these are similar activities, it is likely most of us would have different brain activity as we thought about eating the ice cream versus the broccoli. We are conscious of some of the differences in brain activity, such as knowing that we would enjoy the taste of one versus the other and that one might be healthier for us. But, the majority of the brain activity difference would be below the level of consciousness.

How does this apply to unconscious vs. conscious racism?
Unconscious racism occurs as our brains respond to people such that different levels of brain activity takes place in less than a quarter of a second based upon a person’s race. That difference in brain activity does not need to lead to any overt racism, but it can impact our behaviors in subtle ways. Someone can believe that they are not racist and know at a conscious level that racism is wrong, yet still have an unconscious bias in processing race. 

This is in contrast to conscious racism, in which one has a belief that people are different based upon their race. By the way, science has shown that there is greater variability in genes within a single race than between different races, making it clear that race is not a “biological” phenomenon. Conscious racism often leads to overt behavior and historically has led people to create laws and policies that can cause institutional racism. 

Is there anything we can do to control or change unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias does not have to be bad. You may have been raised hearing stories about altruistic behavior and the value of being generous and kind. As a result, you may have an unconscious bias towards helping others at a cost to yourself. Obviously, some unconscious bias can lead to unproductive or bad behavior, especially when that bias deals with topics like race or gender. Can unconscious bias be changed? Certainly most companies think so. This year it is projected that worldwide, companies will spend over $700 billion on advertising. The vast majority of that money is spent trying to change or reinforce unconscious bias in how we view spending our money. From a neuroscience perspective, what these companies are trying to do is engage in a process called neuroplasticity—the way one’s neurons respond to input can change with experience. If the neurons can change how they respond, then the biases can change as well. 

Do you explore these topics with your students?
I teach a course called Introduction to Neuroscience, which includes topics such as unconscious racism. My former student, Jennifer Tiedemann (Marsico) C’07, works as a senior editor at Discourse Magazine. She was editing another article that was claiming that the brain does not see race. She remembered taking my course years ago and learning about unconscious racial discrimination, so she asked me to consider writing an article describing my views. 

In my research lab, my students and I do research in the field of Alzheimer’s disease. We explore mechanisms that cause neurons to degenerate in this disease and then look for novel treatment strategies to protect the neurons.

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