University of South Carolina Scientists Measure the Stress of Racism in Brain Activity

Tawanda M. Greer and Jennifer Vendemia, two psychologists at the University of South Carolina, have completed a landmark study that examines brain activity of people who are exposed to racism or race-related stress. The conclusion is that racism impacts brain activity in a way that other stress does not.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the study examined images of the brains of 20 adult subjects. The images focused on the area of the brain that controls emotional reactions and decision making. The subjects, about evenly distributed between blacks and whites, were shown photographs of blacks and whites whose expressions were either happy, hostile, or neutral. The test subjects were asked whether they thought the person in the photograph could be trusted to give them good directions.

The brains of both black and white test subjects responded the same way to photographs of black and white faces that displayed either happy or hostile expressions. White subjects did not have different brain reactions when shown photographs of whites or blacks with neutral expressions.

However, for black test subjects there was little brain activity when shown photographs of blacks with neutral expressions. But there was heightened brain activity when they observed photographs of whites with neutral expressions. In addition to increased activity in the area of the brain dealing with emotional reactions, there was increased activity in the area of the brain associated with assessing threats.

Professor Greer noted that “African-American participants pored over the photos of neutral white faces looking for visual clues that would suggest that they could trust the person. The more intently they looked, the more their stress level increased. The MRIs recorded significant blood flow in social evaluative regions of the brain.”