femme Neuroscience Notes

Some Topics

Decisions & Discrimination

Discrimination refers to noticing differences and making choices based on evaluating differences. One of the trends in neuroscience involves understanding of how decisions are made. You could argue that detecting and responding to differences is the most universal strategy in animal brains.

Humans are good at detecting differences and make millisecond decisions that have a lasting influence on their subsequent decision making procedures. The kind and degree of difference is always in flux and depends on prior learning, context and social status. Discrimination is a deeply imbedded property of the human mind that is expressed in almost every human behavior we might consider. However, discrimination as a popular topic is often a misinterpretation of the normal activity of noticing and acting on differences.

All animals decide among alternatives many times every day. Often survival is determined by the accuracy of decisions. We will consider the root dialectics of decision making: familiar and strange, approach and avoidance, reward and punishment. Researchers have looked closely, discovering that humans decide in the same way that other animals decide and make the same kind of mistakes. Decisions are mostly made unconsciously and quickly. While most behavior is organized in the old brain, the neocortex stores memories, not like photographs, video recordings or digital files, but as abstract features of experiences that can be compared quickly with features extracted from ongoing experience. The decision processes require rapid parallel processing available in the neocortex. Decisions are made in milliseconds; the processes that lead to decisions are not represented in consciousness.

In popular debates, discrimination is treated as an aberration. Terms that end in “ism” and “ist” are often used to describe discriminating people in a derogatory manner. Thus anyone with a different ancestry who disagrees with you becomes a racist. This is not to argue that noticing differences is always positive. It is to argue that humans base a lot of their decisions on noticing differences and deciding to favor the familiar over the unfamiliar. In a positive mode, the description “a discriminating shopper” identifies human who notices differences in design and quality of manufacture, choosing high quality products rather than cheap ones.

We have recognized that group membership is all important to humans. You recognize familiar humans who speak and act like yourself as members of your group. In a crowd you notice humans who display small differences in speech, costume and behavior. Most often these small differences are the basis for shunning or ignoring the “strange” humans. In the most rigid groups, everyone wears the same costume, repeats the same polite language, with the same intonation and behaves in a predicable, ritualistic manner.

We have recognized that racial and ethnic boundaries exist but obvious boundaries are not required for discrimination. The ideal of an egalitarian society is to recognize the merit of individuals; to allow social mobility based on learning and achievement; and to protect individual expressions by social policy and law, but human nature does not change. Group preferences and boundaries that separate groups can always be identified.