The Neuropsychology of Social Justice

In neuropsychology, there are a few categories of subjects that a lot of researchers are hesitant to explore because of their complicated and messy nature. Empathy and social interaction are two such subjects, and I am spending my summer investigating these phenomena in human behavior at the Social Interaction and Motivation (SIM) Lab at Brandeis University. We are exploring the physiological and neurological processes that underlie how human beings interact, connect and empathize with one another. More specifically, we are investigating what are fundamental neurological and physiological differences that occur when someone interacts with a person of their “in-group” (same race) versus a person of an “out-group” (other race).

Because it is an ongoing experiment I cannot share too many specifics; however, the experiment we are currently running involves inviting in Boston-area community members and asking them to complete a series of surveys and tasks while we record their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG). Participants meet each other and are asked to share personal experiences, as well as complete a few tasks together. Specifically we are interesting in recording from pre-motor neurons, looking for a phenomenon called “motor resonance.” Without boring you with the nitty-gritty science of it, this phenomenon of motor resonance is thought to be the neural underpinning for human empathy.

If you’re interested in learning more of the science and theory here is a link to some useful background information. 

What does this have to do with social justice? Well, by investigating social interactions we are hoping to find some valuable answers to the mystery of human empathy. Empathy has become an increasingly important skill in today’s social and political climate, and I hope that by better understanding the neurological and physiological events of empathic connection (or lack thereof) we can apply this new knowledge to social justice movements. Here at the lab, we want to understand what facilitates empathy with some groups of people, while others are discriminated against and even sometimes dehumanized.

There has been previous research into the neuroscience of prejudice and intergroup relations, and the experiment we are running this summer hopes to build on the existing literature.

Here is another link about the neuroscience of prejudice and intergroup relations

As a research assistant, the majority of my job is to help run the actual experiment. This involves greeting participants, getting them settled into the lab, preparing their EEG cap, and setting up tasks. This first month especially has been a lot of learning protocol, but we are now running the study a few times a week. When I am not running the study, I am often helping graduate students with their research or conducting literature reviews.

This is me, interacting with an EEG mannequin. We use these to attach all the electrodes to the cap before we place it on the participant. 

Before the summer ends, I really hope to have a better scope into how scientific discovery can alongside with social movements. In social neuropsychology, a lot of the research on prejudice and bias (alongside social interaction) provides deep and sometimes dark insight into human social behavior. It does not simply suffice to be aware of these discoveries; the real challenge lies in how do we, as researchers and scientists, get this information out to the public in a way that is useful and constructive.