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Mindful : October 2016
Our brain can move very fast, and that can be a real problem. The tendency to make split-second assessments of people can lead to disastrous outcomes. In the 1933 Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup, Chico Marx asks, “ Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The late great comedian Richard Pryor changed it to “lyin’ eyes” in one of his classic bits, using humor to underline a very serious point: At the very level of perception, our eyes are already lying to us, because of how our brains have been condi- tioned to see. A growing body of research is showing that what we see when we see a face is so strongly shaped by stereotypes, beliefs, and attitudes that we literally see features, expressions, and emo- tions that aren’t there and can actually—at least at first—misperceive sex, race, and expressions. We instantly classify a face by sex, race, age, social status, and emotion, the strongest categories available to the brain. (Evolution sculpted the brain to be attuned to signals that might alert us to possible threats.) Next, the brain immediately and unconsciously activates everything it knows (or believes) about people belonging to the categories—that’s how stereo- types are born. In less than a second (hence the name “split-second social perception,” as this process is called), those stereotypes act back on our visual system. Result: “ Your perception of a face is a combi- nation of what’s before your eyes and the bag- gage you bring to the table,” said psychologist → Beware Your Biased Brain Sharon Begley is senior science writer with The Boston Globe Media Group, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. 20 mindful October 2016 brain science Illustration by Karin Söderquist