How the brain helps us navigate social differences

October 04, 2020

Our brain responds differently if we talk to a person of a different socioeconomic background from our own compared to when we speak to someone whose background is similar, according to a new imaging study by UCL and Yale researchers.

In the study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 39 pairs of participants had a conversation with each other while wearing headsets that tracked brain activity.

Researchers found that, among pairs of people who had very different socioeconomic backgrounds - calculated according to education level and family income - there was a higher level of activity in an area of the frontal lobe called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The area is associated with speech production and rule-based language as well as cognitive and attentional control.

The findings support previous research suggesting that frontal lobe systems play a role in detecting bias and helping us to regulate our behaviour to avoid bias expression. The increased activity in the left frontal lobe was observed in both participants and was more alike than the brain responses of participants talking to someone of a similar background.

In a questionnaire following their task, participants paired with people of different backgrounds reported a slightly higher level of anxiety and effort during their conversation than those in similar-background pairs.

Professor Joy Hirsch (UCL Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineering and Yale) said: "For the first time, we have identified the neural mechanisms involved in social interactions between people of different backgrounds.

"I believe our findings offer a hopeful message. We know that humans can have positive social encounters with others who are different. Now we have the neurobiological basis - our brains have apparently developed a frontal lobe system that helps us deal with diversity."

Participants' brain activity was tracked using a new technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which monitors blood flow and blood oxygenation by measuring changes in near-infrared light and involves wearing only a light headset. Previous studies have involved using MRI scans, which require patients to lie down and keep still, making conversation difficult.

The conversation task lasted for 12 minutes and involved participants being randomly assigned four subjects on themes such as "What did you do last summer?" and "How do you bake a cake?"

After their conversation task, participants were asked about the level of education they had completed and their parents' annual income and given a score based on these details. Pairs of participants were classified as either "high-disparity" or "low-disparity" depending on how different their scores were.

The two groups - different-background pairs and similar-background pairs - were matched in terms of age, race and gender, minimising the impact of these variables on the results. The participants were recruited from Yale's home city of New Haven in Connecticut, both from within the campus and beyond. They ranged in age from 19 to 44 and had a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Lead author Olivia Descorbeth, a Yale University graduate who came up with the research proposal while still at school, said: "We wanted to know if the brain responded differently when we talked to others of a different socioeconomic background. Now we know that it does and that humans have a neurobiology that helps us navigate social differences."
-end-
Senior author Professor Hirsch's joint appointment between UCL and Yale is made possible by the Yale-UCL Collaborative, an agreement that promotes joint research and enables teaching to be shared between the two institutions.

The study received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, of the US National Institutes of Health.

University College London

Related Cognitive Articles from Brightsurf:

Cognitive performance - Better than our predecessors
We employ our cognitive skills daily to assimilate and process information.

Lifestyle improvements may lessen cognitive decline
Results from a new study suggest that lifestyle changes may help to improve cognition in older adults experiencing cognitive decline that precedes dementia.

Schooling is critical for cognitive health throughout life
New research suggests that education provides little to no protection against the onset of cognitive declines later in life.

Delirium may cause long term cognitive decline
A new meta-analysis of 24 observational studies from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons found that delirium may cause significant long-term cognitive decline.

Diet may help preserve cognitive function
According to a recent analysis of data from two major eye disease studies, adherence to the Mediterranean diet - high in vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil -- correlates with higher cognitive function.

How language proficiency correlates with cognitive skills
An international team of researchers carried out an experiment at HSE University demonstrating that knowledge of several languages can improve the performance of the human brain.

The brain may need iron for healthy cognitive development
Iron levels in brain tissue rise during development and are correlated with cognitive abilities, according to research in children and young adults recently published in JNeurosci.

Looking at the way we walk can help predict cognitive decline
The way people walk is an indicator of how much their brains, as well as their bodies, are aging.

Women face more cognitive issues after brain tumor radiation women face more cognitive issues after
Young women who undergo radiation therapy to treat a pediatric brain tumor are more likely to suffer from long-term cognitive impairment than male survivors, according to a study by Georgia State University researchers.

Research underscores value of cognitive training for adults with mild cognitive impairment
Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth®, part of The University of Texas at Dallas, combined two non-pharmacological interventions for adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI): eight sessions of Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), a cognitive training program shown to improve reasoning and ability to extract bottom-line messages from complex information; and Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) over the left frontal region, associated with cognitive control and memory recovery success in people with Alzheimer's.

Read More: Cognitive News and Cognitive Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.