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Agony

Worse, they tend to stick around. In 1998 psychologist and social scientist Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard co­ created what’s known as the Implicit Association Test (I AT), a tool for exploring the instant connections the brain draws between races and traits. Previously admin­istered only in the lab but now available online (implicit. harvard.edu), the IAT asks people to pair up pictures of white or black faces with positive words like joy, love, peace and happy or negative ones like agony, evil, hurt and failure. Speed is everything, since the survey tests auto­matic associations. When respondents are told to link the desirable traits to whites and the undesirable ones to blacks, their fingers fairly fly on the keys. When the task is switched, with whites being labeled failures and blacks labeled glorious, fingers slow considerably, a sure sign the brain is struggling.

When Banaji, along with cognitive neuroscientist Liz Phelps of New York Univer­sity, conducted brain scans of subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they discovered one of the reasons for the results. White subjects shown images of black faces responded with greater activation of the amygdala—a region deep in the brain that processes such feelings as alarm and fear—than when they were shown white faces. Later studies showed similar results when black subjects looked at white faces.

Any species capable of what anthropologists call cold hate may be a species beyond help. But scientists are hopeful that we can change, especially as they learn that race, as people understand it, doesn’t even exist

TIME Your Brain: A User’s Guide Article on Race and the Raging Brain

Happily, the brain is not all amygdala, and there are higher regions that can talk sense to the lower ones. Phelps cites studies showing that when blacks and whites were flashed pictures of opposite-race faces only subliminally—blinked at them so quickly that the subjects weren’t consciously aware of seeing them—the amygdala reacted predictably. When the images were flashed more slowly so that the subjects could process them consciously, the amygdala still lit up, but so did the anterior cingulate and the dorsolateral pre­ frontal cortex, regions that calm automatic responses.

Bur what about when the brain goes the other way? What about when racism explodes into full-blown hatred—with all the violence that can go with it? History’s monsters-the Hitlers, Karadzics, Pol Pots, Stalins-may kill on a scale far vaster than do small-bore thugs like Klansmen or church bombers, but they all kill, usually with relish. It’s hard to know how ordinary human brains become so decoupled from empathy, but the problem almost certainly begins with the very complexity of those brains.

Brains of other animals operate mostly in the present and past. When they encounter an outsider, like a mem­ ber of an opposing group, simply driving off the interloper is sufficient, since they don’t give much thought to whether the intrusion will happen again. Humans think of time in a more three-dimensional way, operating with a sense of the future and the ability to plan for it. That spells trouble for perceived enemies, with one group set­ ting out to eradicate a threat by using the straightforward method of eradicating the other group. And as our ability to develop weapons has progressed, our ability to carry out those murderous plans has too. “For the same aggres­ sive impulse, we can do a lot more killing,” Dovidio says.

But why do some societies—or individuals—cross the line into savagery and others don’t? Psychologist Robert Sternberg, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, believes three things are necessary.

First comes what psychologists call a negation of intimacy—a snuffing out not only of empathy for mem­bers of the target group but also of the belief that they even deserve empathy since they may not be wholly human. It’s no coincidence that the Hutu in Rwanda referred to the Tutsi as cockroaches and Nazi propaganda films depicted Jews as rats. Even good people will burn a hornet’s nest.

The second component is what Sternberg labels passion, which is—more than mere contempt for the hated group—a deep, visceral loathing. “Passion is hot hate,” he says, “the kind you see in road rage.”

Finally, there’s commitment, a cognitive, intellectualized decision to act, often justified by the belief that the target group is guilty of some grievous historical wrong, like winning the other group’s land in a long-ago war. “Commitment,” says Sternberg, “is more of a cold hate.

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