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Mindful : October 2016
read facial expressions, as Paul Ekman’s pioneering experiments on “microexpressions” have shown. Our eyes lie so badly that people in Freeman’s exper- iments take a split-second longer to identify a black female face as female than to identify a white female face as female; they initially are drawn to “male” even when the woman’s features are as feminine as the white woman’s. The reason, he suspects, is that stereotypes exist associating “black” with “aggressive,” and “aggressive” with “male,” so subjects “see” the face as male before correcting themselves. The same phenomenon occurs with male Asian faces: There is a stereotype that associates “Asian” with “unthreaten- ing/happy,” and “unthreatening/happy” with female, so male Asian faces are seen, for a fraction of a second, as female. In response to a suggestion that people may be perceiving Asian facial bone structure as more “female,” Freeman asserts that his latest work combin- ing mouse-tracking with neuroimaging has controlled for these possible perceived physical resemblances. He believes stereotypical associations on perceptions are stronger than physical resemblances. Split-second perceptions can influence what we see—in what cognitive scientists refer to as “top-down processing,” whereby categories and expectations drive perception—regardless of whether we endorse a stereotype. Society’s stereotypes insinuate themselves into our gray matter in a deep-seated way. “These top- down cognitive processes reach into our basic ability to perceive,” Freeman said. “Things like stereotypes and attitudes, which were long thought to be downstream processes,”— meaning they would come into play only after we correctly perceived something like a face—“in terms of perception, in fact affect the actual, initial perception—literally, what we see.” This work suggests that as we seek to counteract bias, personally and societally, we need to pay attention both to how our brains are trained and conditioned by the cultural context we exist in and how they can lie to us on the spot. ● Society’s stereotypes insinuate themselves into our gray matter in a deep-seated way, literally affecting what we see. AD October 2016 mindful 25