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Hostility and a tiny little almond in the brain

as in Who do you choose to be?

What if racism isn’t really real? What I mean is, what if it’s just a string of cells, carrying impulses that date from about 400 000 years ago, when we were still half-apes moving around in small groups on the savannah? And, if so, could we simply rewire those strings at will, at any given time?

I’m a Swedish anthropologist, currently working on a documentary with american neuroanatomist, Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. Some of you may remember her from her book, ”My stroke of insight”, that came out for about ten years ago, or perhaps from one of her appearances on Oprah around the same time. She was selected one of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2008 by Time Magazine. For those of you who are not familiar with her story, she was a brain scientist who, at the top of her career, suffered a severe stroke in her left hemisphere and lost her ability to walk, talk, and to even remember who she’d been. Eight years, it took her to fully recover. And then she became a brain scientist, again. Yes, she is quite an extraordinary lady, quite a wonderful soul. And this I know, because I had the good fortune to meet her this spring.

I read her book only about a year ago actually. In the beginning of it, she briefly describes the different functions of the brain, just so that the reader can follow a bit better. At one point, I remember it well, she mentions a small group of cells, the size of an almond, called the Amygdala. Its role, she wrote, is to interpret impressions coming in from our senses and to detect if there is something unfamiliar among them that might represent a danger to us. If it does, our body needs to quickly become ready to defend itself. Therefore, she continued, when the amygdala does get triggered by something that it doesn’t recognize, it goes ”alert! alert!” and, instantly, all the links to other centers of interpretation in our brain are shut off. Our attention switches to alert mode, which has only three options: freeze, flight or fight.

I suddenly felt as if a light bulb got lit within, I kid you not. I read the sentence again. ”…all the links to other centers of interpretation in our brain are shut off…”.

”So THAT’S why…”, I thought, instantly beaming of relief and satisfaction, with a pinch of incredulity. …”THAT’S why it’s so difficult to reason with racists”…

… ”It’s not because they intrinsically hate those who are different from them, it’s because their brain physiologically cut off their ability to think rationally, because somehow they perceived those who were different to be a potential threat. It’s not hate, it’s fear! It’s not an opinion, it’s a physiological reaction in the brain! Wow… ”

I was stunned by the thought, amazed by the possibility that this perhaps could offer a whole new way of seeing, talking about and understanding racism, even bullying, perhaps even warmongers, why, even nazis for that matter…. Thoughts were almost knocking each other over in their eagerness to contribute.

Quite quickly though, I realized that that particular deduction wasn’t as clear to everyone as it was to me, albeit their reactions did seem mostly positive. Surprised, but positive.

Still enthusiastic about the possibility of a new way to approach and understand racism and hostility, I decided to write to Dr Taylor herself, telling her about my thoughts, asking her if she thought they would be worth investigating and, if so, if she would accept that I’d come and interview her?

And she actually said yes. To all of it.

So here I am, here we are, today. It turns out that it all could make sense; Racism, bullying, in fact most forms of hostility, could indeed be both explained and extirpated by some of the latest findings in neuroscience. Those, coupled with our free will of course. Concious choices are paramount. That’s not new in any way of course, but in this context it does become particularly interesting.

The way we are wired, since our time on the savannah, still steers our reactions in order for us to survive. But our brain has grown significantly since that time. We have a thicker cortex today, more mass to think with, so to say. And while our reptilian instincts are crucial to our immediate survival against predators and hostile ennemies, well, so is our ability – and need – to use the newer parts of our brain. If not, we risk to become predatory and hostile ourselves, in situations that in fact do not require it. Furthermore, we often seem to confound survival of the physical creature that we are and survival of the psychological identity that we have forged for ourselves.

So what, from the brain’s perspective, actually happens? What’s going on inside of us when we do perceive someone new, or someone who looks, talks or believes differently from us, to be a potential danger to us? Why do some of us react with curiosity and others with fear? Why do our reactions vary? And is there anything we can do to get around these instincts when they are not founded in actual threats to our survival ?

The mission of the documentary is to be able to investigate and to talk about these things without pointing fingers in any direction but very gently towards our inner selves.

The goal is, first, to increase our awareness thus responsibility over our own ways and actions and, second, for the film to be used as an entertaining, inspirational, educational piece, to screen on festivals and on television in both the US and Europe, as well as serve as discussion material in future classrooms, global organizations and social media.

The hope for the film? Well, to make the world a better place for us all of course…

Would you be interested in becoming involved in the project, get in touch.

Oh, and I would like to leave you with a citatation that I’m very fond of:

”Please take responsibility for the kind of energy you bring into this space” – Dr Jill Bolte Taylor

Thank you so much for reading.

And now, welcome to watch a short teaser:

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