A son and his father are in a horrible car accident. The father dies on impact. The son, who is severely injured, is rushed to the hospital. The surgeon looks at the son, and immediately says, “I can’t operate. The boy is my son.” How can that be? The surgeon is the boy’s mother.
Did you initially assume that the surgeon was a man? I did. The first time I read this scenario in an issue of Reader’s Digest I was a young girl. I would like to think that if I read the story for the first time today, I would not find it confusing because of gender bias. I’ll never know the answer. But what I do know is that, with exposure and repetition, we can burn new neural pathways in our brains and break out of our bias bubbles.
Evidence for the ability to burn new neural pathways – or neuroplasticity – was documented in Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, a new book by Stanford University Professor Dr. Elizabeth Eberhardt. She writes:
In 2000, not long after I arrived at Stanford, a team led by Professor Eleanor Maguire published a paper that caused quite a stir in the neuroscience community. They’d scanned the brains of London cabdrivers in an effort to examine how the hippocampus – a horseshoe-shaped structure in the medial temporal lobe – might grow in response to demands placed upon it by the taxing experience of driving through the London city streets day in and day out.
Maguire’s team found that the brains of taxicab drivers – who had by necessity learned the structural layout of more than twenty-five thousand London streets –showed significant differences in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a critical role in spatial memory and navigation. The taxi drivers’ navigational expertise was associated with increased gray matters. They had enlarged posterior hippocampal regions, in comparison with a control group of people who didn’t drive cabs for a living. In fact, the longer the drivers had been on the job and the more experience they had, the lager their posterior hippocampus.
What fascinated Dr. Eberhardt about this study was how the brains of the cab drivers changed – not over a period of thousands of years – but within a few years of their lives. The implication this has for overcoming racial bias, for example, is that repeated exposure to people of other races eventually changes our neural response. In a study conducted by Eberhardt and her colleagues, the brains of white people fired more when shown pictures of faces of other white people, and less when shown pictures of faces of black people. This is because, as Eberhardt writes, “we reserve our precious cognitive resources for people who are ‘like us’, otherwise we see categories.
The bad news is that our brains are wired for bias. The good news is that the brain has the incredible ability to rewire. We can restructure our brains through repetitive exposure and bust our bias bubbles.
Question: When was the last time you caught yourself being biased?
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