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Study Shows Brain’s Reaction Racial Stress

Racial mistrust affects the brain of Whites and Blacks differently. A new University of South Carolina study finds Black peoples’ brains register stress in response to neutral facial expressions of Whites.

Study researchers Dr. Tawanda Greer and Dr. Jennifer Vendemia used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain’s response to stimuli. They specifically targeted areas of the brain that process emotional reactions and decisions.

Researchers showed their participants a series of White and Black adult faces with happy, hostile or neutral expressions. The question for the participants for each photo: can you trust this person to give you directions? Researchers monitored brain activity as they waited for the response from their participants, 11 Blacks and nine Whites.

Blacks and Whites had no major differences in their reactions to happy and hostile faces. But Black participants showed a very high level of stress in the brain when they looked at Whites’ neutral facial expressions.

“The African-American participants pored over the photos of neutral White faces looking for visual cues that would suggest that they could trust the person,” Greer says. “The more intently they looked, the more their stress level increased.”

Greer says “ambiguous” situations involving Whites has been associated with race-related distress for Blacks.

Greer and Vendemia’s findings suggest there are further opportunities in neuroscience to study race-related stress.

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