5 Approaching Anti-Racism through Cognitive Psychology
Lydia King; Molly Boggs; and Eileen Myers
Racism, like many other “isms,” can be generalized and understood as a learned behavior and attitude, perpetuated through systems and institutions of the modern world. With the newfound momentum of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, many are asking themselves how they can begin to be anti-racist. From what is known about memory and cognition, being anti-racist involves a recurring practice of meta-cognitive self reflection and a willingness to be uncomfortable (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). As humans, our beliefs and behaviors are developed through a combination of observed experiences and neurological processes. In an effort to survive, the brain has several functions that allows us to identify patterns, make connections, and form educated predictions from our previous experiences; the byproduct of these functions are our beliefs and behaviors (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). While we do have foundational beliefs from early lived experiences, our memory is built to be adaptable and flexible; this flexibility is what makes our memories fallible, but it is also what allows us to change our beliefs and move towards a more anti-racist way of thinking.
While it is easy to discuss the importance of memory, it is much more difficult to define. We possess one cohesive memory; however, it is often useful to acknowledge that memory has both biological and cultural components, as does all human cognition. The familiar debate of ‘nature vs. nurture’ problematically suggests that we are affected by either nature (i.e., innate factors such as genetics and neurology) or nurture (i.e., exogenous factors such as parenting and culture). Historically, cognitive psychology failed to acknowledge culture’s influence on cognition. The novelty of the conversation regarding culture and cognition is evident in a statement made by Angela H. Gutchess and Allie Indeck titled “Cultural influences on memory” in which they concluded that “… there are relatively few studies that investigate neural differences across cultures…” (Gutchess & Indeck 2009). Today, it is now established that the interaction between both internal and external factors are what define human cognition (Kiel, 2014). Instead of nature vs. nurture, it is more practical to focus on the ways in which nature and nurture influence one another, and the balance between human universals and cultural influences.
Memory and the mechanisms of memory are at the core of what beliefs stem from. Renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman once stated, “what we get to keep from our experiences is a story”, and the closer we study human memory, the more we see that this is true. It is our memory of experiences—not the experiences themselves—that possesses the power to shape beliefs and behaviors (Kahneman, 2010). What is important to understand about memory, is that it does not function in a linear way. Instead, memory is a complex, dynamic concept that allows humans to navigate the world through the guidance of experiences that they have already lived. With this being said, the formation of memory can be discussed in a simplistic processual way. Simply put, the process of memory starts by an environmental stimulus. This stimulus could be a sound, a sight, a feeling, or a movement. This input is then encoded or translated in the brain, sent to the appropriate areas of the brain, and is then “stored” for potential recollection in the future. Information can get “lost” or forgotten at each stage of the process and successfully encoding the memory does not necessarily guarantee successful retrieval. The reasons for this are more easily understood when approached in a biological way.
The biological processes by which we gather and retain information are largely universal. At the onset of studying memory in the 1950’s, this process was illustrated in terms of computer science, which can be seen by the terminology we use today. ‘Encoding’, ‘storage’, and ‘retrieval’ are all terms from computer processing that made their way into the study of the human brain. However, these assumptions about memory shifted with the development of technology that could observe brain chemistry, such as FMRI and PET scans (Baddeley [of Memory and the Brain], 2020). These advancements confirmed that the computer metaphor is largely incorrect. Mathematics, as it turns out, do not mimic nerve transmission, nor does memory ‘storage’ mean that humans can press “save” and preserve perfect versions of our lived experiences. Actually, memory happens through phase sequencing, a process whereby the firing of one cell assembly triggers the firing of others.
Donald Hebb coined the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together” to describe the way that neurons behave. Neurons are essentially the building blocks of the brain and are the root of every thought and action. When something in our environment signals for us to act, the corresponding neurotransmitters are released into the brain to initiate this process. The process starts with a neuron shifting from resting to action potential as a result of a neurotransmitter receipt (caused by the environmental stimulus). This shift is an electrical shift between the charges inside and outside of the neuron’s soma. The shift leads to a nerve impulse that transfers the energy to surrounding neurons via the myelin sheath that is wrapped around a neuron’s axon. What results, is a string of fired neurons or otherwise known as cell assemblies. The initial firing of these neurons create the potential for the same neurons to fire again. This is the extent to which a memory is “stored.” This being so, a memory is essentially a successfully repeated cell assembly. Every time a neural cell assembly fires, the likelihood of it firing again increases, therefore strengthening the ability to recall a memory.
Memory can also be explained by its types, most relevantly, episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory can be described as the memory that allows us to recall and seemingly relive specific events (Baddeley et al., 2020, p 15). Semantic memory on the other hand is the collection of knowledge about the world. As we live our lives, we create memories that can be represented episodically through mental recollections of an event. Over time, we develop a collection of knowledge, both factual and theoretical, that serves as our semantic memory. Both, serve as a means for declarative memory, that is, the memory that can be intentionally retrieved.
The relationship between episodic and semantic memory is captured well in Daniel Kahneman’s TedTalk titled “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory,” in which he discusses the dichotomy between the experiencing self and the remembering self. He defines the experiencing self as the self that is constantly experiencing the world, and the remembering self as the “story teller” of the experiences. When we recall episodic memories, we are recalling the story that our remembering self has formed, with the guidance of our experiencing self’s state of being. This being so, what we recall about an event may change from day to day based on the state that our experiencing self is in at the time of recall. While the majority of this process occurs through episodic memory, as we identify patterns and make connections to what we are observing and experiencing, our episodic memories shift into semantic knowledge through integration and consolidation (van Kesteren et al, 2020, pp 3-4). This results in a strong conceptual understanding of the elements within the memories, with less inclusion of emotion and episodic detail (van Kesteren et al, 2016, p 3). In other words, we create generalizations or schemas about the world into knowledge structures that serve as our perspective of the environment that we are in.
While memory is at the core of beliefs and decision making, the ultimate reason these functions exist is because memory is intended for survival. When humans can make sound judgements on how to react to the world around them, they have a higher chance of surviving in their given environment. These judgements are based on what psychologist Fredric Bartlett referred to as schemas; internal representations that define how a person understands the world around them (Baddeley et al., 2020, p 8). Schemas vary from person to person, and are developed through the episodic and semantic memories that one accumulates over their lives. While a schema is not directly a belief on its own, it is the basis that a person may use to back up a belief. Schemas are an integral part of how memories function; they give humans the ability to learn complex ideas, navigate their environment, foresee potential threats, and maintain a consistent understanding of how they relate to their environment and the people in their environment. In many ways, memories are substantially more than simple visualizations of events.
Schemas are also heavily influenced and developed by cultural relativities. While cognitive psychology often focuses on the universalities of our brains, our cultural experiences influence the ways in which our memories form and explain the differences in beliefs and behaviors across cultures. All humans have a central nervous system and a cognitive system. This is universal and consistent with all humans. With this being said, the central nervous system and cognitive system are also shaped by the various systems of culture. These systems include social systems, political systems, and cultural systems. Each culture has a set of rules and values that guide the way people within the culture may observe and appreciate things, and therefore guide the ways in which their memories form (Ross & Wang, 2007 pp 650-651). Often in cultural memory, stories of the culture are passed down by language. The storytelling of one’s ancestors, their language, music, rituals, and where they have traveled greatly impact the schemas that an individual may have. In other words, people create culture, but culture also circles back to us, influencing what we believe and the stories we remember. The conclusion that can be made when considering cultural impact on memory, is that cultural influence does not stop at traditions and values, but rather extends into beliefs and behavior.
The biological process of memory means that all humans are essentially ‘set up’ with an adaptable, ‘story-telling’ brain, while the other side of memory–cultural, or nurtured components–are what feeds this neurological system with meaning. The dichotomy between Eastern and Western cultures is an excellent example of this. In the West, autobiographical memories are shared from a personal perspective, the function of this being to establish individual identity. In a Treatise on Human Nature, Scottish philosopher David Hume stated “Had we no memory, we never should have any notion…of that chain of cause and effects, which constitute our self or person”, highlighting how the value of individualism influences what and how Western cultures remember (Wang & Ross, 2007, p. 648). In contrast, many cultures in East Asia emphasize universal aspects of autobiographical memories due to the cultural value of collectivism. Studies show that Eastern cultures are far less likely to recall childhood memories than their Western counterparts. When they do report autobiographical memories, they are more likely to focus on events and life lessons, and often leave out personal aspects such as their own feelings or thoughts (Wang & Ross, 2007, p. 649-651). Different cultural views of memory also impact how those views affect the individual’s ability to remember. In some Eastern cultures, memory focuses on “…awareness, appreciation, perception, insight and mindfulness…” (Wang & Ross, 2007, pg. 647). In these cultures, memory takes on a more spiritual meaning rather than a Western ideal that is strictly brain science and the physical capacities of the individual. In this way, people from a western tradition focus more on the self and how to make sense of the purpose of their life and what they will contribute. Though both Easterners and Westerners possess the same story-making capabilities, the narratives that we piece together from our experiences, as well as the experiences themselves, are entirely different. What stays with us, according to Kahneman, are “changes, significant moments and endings”, things that are largely determined by one’s cultural framework (Kahneman, 2010).
As powerful as memories are, they are also fallible and more incorrect than they are correct. In fact as we build schematic memory, we are often more likely to make misattributions and false memories. Our susceptibility to erroneous and ever changing memories can be understood when we think about memory in terms of its purpose. To survive, we need to be able to utilize only the amount of energy that is necessary, due to finite neural energy. Our brain is created for efficiency, not accuracy (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). If we were to remember everything that we experience and learn, we would be physically and neurologically exhausted. While it would be convenient to remember every fact in a textbook, this convenience does not align with the purpose of memory. If we focused on every detail of our lived experiences, we would likely neglect vital details that are necessary to our survival. In addition, our memory needs to be flexible enough so that a subtle change in our environment would not disrupt our schemas. If our memories were rigid and privy to precise detail, we would have to cycle through all the details that we’ve ever experienced in order to come to a single conclusion. Our memories being flexible, allows us to generalize concepts and use this generalization to make predictions for all concepts that relate to it (Van Kesteren et al., 2016, p 2). Sometimes, however, these predictions can lead to racist assumptions. This is the cost of memory–through the same processes which provide us with incredible flexibility, our memory also contributes to the formation of stereotypes and racial bias. In a culture that perpetuates stereotypes and discrimination, we are often unaware of the way racism impacts our narrative. We are also often unaware of the way this process circles back, making us contributors to this culture.
Because our memory is susceptible to error, it is also susceptible to change. Ironically, we can use the same frameworks that build our biases to break them. Cognitive psychology research has revealed many ways in which we can optimize the memory process to aid learning. While the approaches are intended for learning, they can be applied well to adopting anti-racist beliefs. This is because learning in any form, whether that is learning facts in a textbook, or learning to be anti-racist is really just the strengthening of cell assemblies via repeated activation (kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). A repeated use of meta-cognitive self-reflection makes great use of many memory principles. The cycle includes using performance and in the moment control, followed by reflection and evaluation, and completed by forethought and planning (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). By utilizing these three steps, you engage in practices that reinforce learning and growth.
Additionally the process requires you to be intentional about what you are doing, leading to greater connection and understanding of your beliefs and behaviors. Social psychologists today have already begun instilling parts of meta-cognitive self-reflection on a systemic level, for instance within police departments. Eberhardt (2020) describes a study in which police officers were told to ask themselves a question (i.e., “why am I considering pulling this person over?”) prior to making stops. The result was enormous, with a vast decrease in total police stops. The percentage of stops for Black individuals, who were stopped at a disproportionately high rate, decreased by 43 percent (Eberhardt, 2020). Through one simple question, the story was changed, and countless acts based on biased narratives were avoided. If the police departments go a step further by adding in the other steps of meta-cognitive self-reflection (evaluation, forethought and planning), after enough repeated use, perhaps they would no longer need to ask the question every time they think about pulling someone over, as it would start becoming automatic.
Ultimately, memory is the means through which we develop our skills, knowledge, beliefs, and behavior. While memory is imperfect, it is the room for error that allows it to function in a way that serves us best. By understanding how memory functions we can grasp just how important it is for our survival, well being, and growth. From what we know about memory and cognition, our beliefs and our biases are shaped through our experiences and preserved through our memory functions. This being said, the flexibility of our memory gives us the ability to be flexible thinkers. By embracing this flexibility, we are well on our way to be anti-racist.
When we engage in anti-racist efforts and thinking, we are actively recognizing our lived experiences and in many ways, disrupting our automatic behaviors and beliefs. As we pull from our past experiences and analyze how we can rise to the task of anti-racism, we are utilizing processes connected to, what is called, “working memory.”
Working memory can be described as the thoughts you may have in your head at any given moment, tied to what you already know (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). In other words, working memory is the active space in which processing occurs. It is neither specifically episodic or semantic, rather, it pulls information from our episodic and semantic memories and places them with the information of the present in order to fulfill the task at hand. Working memory is what allows us to successfully fulfill tasks from simple endeavors to more complicated assignments.
As much as working memory is utilized through anti-racist thinking, it is also, in part a contributing factor to why we behave and think in racist or racially insensitive ways. When we are surrounded by information in our environment that lends itself towards racist schemas, every time we engage in a task that cues those schemas, we fulfill those tasks and interpret the current events through these schemas. By understanding working memory and how it functions, we can attempt to manipulate the process in a way that upsets our bias and forms an anti-racist framework.
The working memory concept was first introduced by Miller, Galanter, and Pribram in the year 1960, and was later expanded on by Baddeley and Hitch when they developed the initial working memory model (Baddeley et al., 2020, p 74). The model was an attempt to replace the original modal model created by Atkinson and Shiffrin in order to reflect the new data and complexities found about memory in general, and working memory specifically. In the model, they demonstrate working memory as a combination of several components: the phonological loop, the central executive, and the visuo-spatial sketchpad. Since its initial creation, the model has been expanded to also include the episodic buffer as well as stronger links to long term memory.
The working memory model demonstrates these components as representations of working memory processes. The phonological loop can be understood as the place in the working memory in which verbal and acoustic sequences are held temporarily (Baddeley et al., 2020, p. 74). Similarly, the visuo-spatial sketchpad temporarily stores information from visual and spatial coding (Baddeley et al, 2020, p. 80). The central executive is responsible for overall control and is involved in attentional focus and inhibition (Baddeley et al, 2020, p. 82). Each component exists as a dimension of working memory.
Among these components, is the episodic buffer which functions as the space where these dimensions can coexist with each other and with conscious awareness. The episodic buffer acts as a figurative storage space for visual, verbal, and semantic information from varying sources, including the working memory, perception, and long term memory (Baddeley et al., 2020, p. 85). In other words, the episodic buffer is what allows for the connection between these dimensions as well as the actioned response in relation to conscious goals.
As working memory relates to our lives, an enhanced working memory has been correlated with many benefits. Those who show greater leverage in their ability to effectively use their working memory, also demonstrate stronger storytelling, writing ability, reasoning, and tend to have good grades in school and do well on standardized tests (Doolittle 2013). This further supports the idea that working memory is a space where enhancement reaps many rewards. This isn’t to say that it is an easy task. Working memory has its limitations and is built to function in a specific way to complement our goals. To approach anti-racism, one would benefit from understanding these limitations and why they exist.
The ability to utilize working memory to fulfill cognitive and attentional tasks depend on the synchronized activity of three brain regions: the lateral intraparietal area, frontal eye fields, and the prefrontal cortex (Cepelewicz 2018). When communication between these three regions is disrupted, working memory function becomes limited. While it was originally estimated that the working memory capacity was about 9 items, recent studies are confirming that the average person has a working memory capacity of about 4 or 5 (Baddeley et al., 2020, p. 85). These numbers suggest that the average person can balance about 4 inputs before losing optimal processing ability. Interestingly this drop in function can be “felt” by a feeling of unfocus and stress, and can be measured through brain oscillations. Brain oscillations are the waves that are created through the rhythmic activation and rest of millions of neurons (Cepelewicz 2018). Studies have found that as inputs of working memory exceed 4, brain oscillations begin to lose synchronicity and subsequently, working memory fails (Cepelewicz 2018).
The limitations of working memory are likely due to the predictive nature of memory. The psychologists who conducted the study above, theorize that as the amount of inputs placed in working memory gets increasingly larger, the amount of possible predictions that can be made about these items exceed the amount that can be easily encoded into the feedback signal (Cepelewicz 2018). It would be appropriate to conclude that the purpose of memory, survival, makes it so the brain can reasonably predict outcomes using working memory. If our brains operated entirely on focus, we would be unable to make the best prediction for our survival. This limit, while frustrating at times, strikes a balance between focus and predictive ability. In addition it is important to remember that inhibition is just as important to function as attention is. There are countless stimuli from our environment that could be placed in working memory. If we had no limit or inhibition of stimulus, it would be difficult to sort and sift through the information in an efficient and effective way. As it pertains to the brain, limitations are part of the design.
As we consume anti-racist material, we should consider the limitations of working memory. Especially with today’s newfound enthusiasm for anti-racism, one may be compelled to overload on the amount of material they are attempting to absorb. What working memory limitations tells us is that if we want to make what we are learning stick, we should be careful not to overwork our working memory. This concept is also important to remember as we get frustrated with our learning progress. When we lose focus or are frustrated with our inability to make viable changes in our thinking, our first instinct may be to give up when really we should just be patient with ourselves and our working memory.
Besides the space in which we activate processing, we also need to consider the schematic ideas that are being pulled into this space. Even if our working memory is not overtaxed, if the information that we are pulling into it is based on implicitly or explicitly racist schemas, anti-racist changes in our behavior and thoughts will not occur. In order to do so, one must evaluate the schemas, and frames, that they may have about the world and the automatic thoughts that arise from them.
As humans we have the cognitive power to stop being racist and learn new anti-racist schemas. It is necessary that we adjust our semantic memory and recognize our autonoetic conscience in order to avoid discrimination towards people of different colors than ourselves. By understanding the schemas we have learned from our parents, others, our educational system and our prejudicial national system, only then can we begin to rewrite our schematic memory. In Kneeling for social Justice: Epistemologies of ignorance, schemas, and frames on twitter, Robert J. Rice said that “Today, racial discrimination is increasingly hidden, with social systems, laws, and policies designed to covertly suppress people of color, and maintain the status quo of white dominance” (Coates 2003; Alexander 2010). (Rice, 2020) Humans use cultural schemas to set certain classifications in an effort to explain their world and to understand cultures that are not their own; as humans have new experiences that add or adjust with new data, they then potentially create racist beliefs with new schematic memory. Cultural schemas are cognitive structures that guide social interactions both with and outside of their own cultural environment.
In today’s social environment in the USA, there is a great deal of racism that is overtly condoned by almost every aspect of our country including the education we receive, redlining, banking and the current justice system. As we grow up in this kind of environment, we encode the information around us episodically. The information that we encode and schematize can be incidental, or they can be intentional. When information is encoded incidentally it is typically due to a motivation or situation, frame, that cues us to do so (Conway, 2009, p. 2308). In other words, the information that is encoded incidentally, has the potential to be influenced by the bias that is prevalent in the given environment. For example, there are many groups, who believe in the framing that people of color are thugs, criminals and innately lazy members of society. The existence of this kind of biased message, whether subliminal or overt, can be incidentally encoded. If this bias makes its way into our schemas, then the information we pull into our working memory to make judgements creates automatic thoughts that are congruent with the bias. For example, when people are given the messages similar to that above, they may believe that people of color are the source of our national conflict and our current systems’. As we have seen recently, such implications can result in too many violent acts against people of color. Fortunately, there are many projects and groups that are working to re-frame this dialogue and to instill a new schematic memory into our national language. One such voice for anti-racism is Ibram X. Kendi who states “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it,” (Ted 2020). Many of these groups and individuals, including Kendi, emphasize the points we make in this discussion. In order to engage in anti-racism we need intentional effortful processing aimed at disrupting racist frames and questioning our automatic thoughts.
Rice also talks about the idea of an epistemology of ignorance, which is defined as “a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be able to understand the world they themselves have made (Stockly, Olaf, Dana & Thomas, 2011). This plays a part in our national conversation of how we are racist and how certain beliefs allow individuals to accept their own racism as logical and acceptable. Mueller explains how such epistemologies reflect, “a process of knowing designed to produce not knowing surrounding white privilege, culpability, and structural white supremacy”. (Rice 2020) One comment that is often stated in a general way by white people when discussing race is the idea that they are “colorblind” thereby invoking a sense of self ignorance and excusing themselves from any racial issues. Rice further comments that “colorblindness” refers to arguments that deliberately avoid racialized discussions of social problems, thereby being “colorblind,” and how such ideology serves to perpetuate oppression by failing to consider solutions that necessarily account for race” (Rice 2020). In other words, when a person invokes the idea of colorblindness, they are in fact saying to people of color that we do not see you. These are thoughts and beliefs that are based on set schemas from externally cued experiences and cognitive learning. In the USA, many white people previously (and continue to) believe that this concept of colorblindness is actually helpful in the fight against racism, but in the conversation of being anti-racist, we must recognize how colorblindness frames our thinking in a way that contributes to prejudice. Rice finds that the, “epistemological peril of white supremacy online lies in its ability to change how we know what we say we know about issues […] such as civil rights” (Rice, 2020). It was previously believed that to combat racism and the idea of colorblindness was to invoke multiculturalism, the concept of highlighting, acknowledging and celebrating all cultures under one banner. This was a beginning of recognizing that all cultures have special and positive aspects to bring to one collective ideology. Today, we are celebrating in a more cognitive way to reshape the schema of a nation with anti-racism.
Essentially, the process of schematization explains how prejudice enters the brain and the issues that arise when our prejudices unconsciously influence action. We cannot always change our cultural surroundings and the messages about race that they perpetuate; however, we can take an inside-out approach to antiracism by improving our cognitive responses to the environment (i.e., improving working memory). It is working memory that directs action, and it is our body of long-term memories that we draw from to inform these actions. Thus, as stressed above, we do not simply want to relate new information to the old. As Peter Doolittle said, “We want to take all of our existence and wrap it around our new knowledge” (Doolittle, 2013). It is through this process that we make connections and attribute meaning to our experiences, but first we have to build our anti-racist repertoire. We need to process anti-racist content so that it can come and meet us, connect with our daily lives, and ultimately inform us toward anti-racist action. The more we actively process anti-racist informaition, the more likely we are to access it, and the less likely we are to automatically rely on past schemas and their biases. According to doolittle, “what we process, we learn” (Doolittle, 2013). Given the constraints of working memory (i.e., capacity), how do we optimize processing so that simply exposing ourselves to anti-racist information is transformed into meaningful learning experiences?
The discipline of learning science, which was originally developed for educational purposes, may be used in the context of antiracism to increase our ability to recall anti-racist content and dismantle old schemas. Learning scientists have found that methods such as spaced practice, interleaving, retrieval practice, dual coding, elaboration, and the use of concrete examples are successful learning tactics.
For instance, when taking in large quantities of information (e.g., reading a book, taking a class), one may resort to consuming information in large blocks (e.g., ‘cram’ sessions). Instead, one may opt to engage in shorter (e.g., 30 minute), spaced practices to allow for more frequent processing. For example, when trying to absorb anti-racist media, space out the periods of time in which you consume them; don’t try to absorb the information all at once. Van Kesteren and Meeter (2020) asserts that taking breaks and allowing the mind to ‘wander’ enables the brain to semanticize information as it does during sleep, through the process of consolidation. Instead of one large schema that is subject to generalization, spaced practice establishes many specific schemas that better represent new knowledge and its complexity. Developing intricate schemas on racism will help us to adopt a realistic view of others and dismantle stereotypes and assumptions.
Interleaving produces a similar effect. Like spaced practice, interleaving optimizes consolidation through frequent breaks. Additionally, it allows our brains to expand information from one context to another by switching between topics. By studying in one discipline for a short period of time, then switching to a second discipline it allows new knowledge to be expanded from one context to the next; thus, maximizing neuronal connections. Elaboration and the use of concrete examples are additional ways to expand connection-making and process information (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Moreover, many of the learning science methods (i.e., spaced practice, interleaving, retrieval practice) repeatedly call us back to the same material increasing memory for details (Van Kesteren & Meeter, 2020). The adaptable human brain ‘logs’ these short study sessions as separate interactions, ultimately increasing the likelihood that it will be accessed by our working memory later on. The process of activation, resting, and reactivation essentially makes information more accessible to us, which lets working memory operate smoothly.
The same effect can be achieved through dual coding, though for different reasons. The principles of encoding variability and encoding specificity refer to the idea that activating various parts of the cortex when encountering information increases the number of cues available when recalling that information in the future. For instance, one might draw pictures of what they read in a book. They might then try explaining what they learned verbally to a friend or family member. According to dual coding hypothesis, this will activate both visual and verbal channels in the brain (Baddeley et al., 2020, p. 170). When the time comes to retrieve the information into working memory for the sake of action (e.g., performing well on a test), the brain can rely on semantic, visual and verbal cues to access it (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Though developed in an educational context, dual coding can be used for one’s personal growth as well. As we intentionally educate ourselves and expose ourselves to antiracist messages, we can activate more cortex simply by starting a conversation about what we learned. Simultaneously, this will help others to make connections and dismantle their own biased schemas.
Ultimately, seeking out anti-racist knowledge is only useful to us when we process it. For example, if reading a book about antiracism, it is important to be an active reader, one that is attentive to the automatic thoughts that arise while reading and questioning them. If giving a lecture or teaching others on the topic of antiracism, one might try to involve more cortex by incorporating visuals. However, as not everyone is in an educational setting, we can also find more general ways to process information as we live our normal lives. Asking ourselves simple questions, such as the one posed by Eberhardt to police officers, forces us to pause and avert attention and energy to our bias. By monitoring our responses, and by questioning ourselves and others, we will slowly begin to unravel schemas that were created by, and perpetuate a culture of racism.
All in all, we are not always in control of the environment and the episodic elements that we encode. Oftentimes, we are left with bias that we have no recollection of ever consuming. Unfortunately, as we live life, we inevitably encode details that may influence the way we see the world, and the way we see people. By engaging in effortful processing, being proactive about how we consume anti-racist material, and being aware of the psychological processes that give way to both racist and anti-racist thoughts, we can begin to effectively evaluate how our experiences have contributed to our current biases and the ways in which we can disrupt them.
In Elizabeth Loftus’ Ted Talk presentation she eloquently proclaimed that “memory works a little bit more like a wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people” (Loftus, 2013). As we discuss memory in its entirety, it is important to consider not just the functions and processes of memory but also the fallibility of memory and what it may reveal about memory itself. Understanding the fallibility of memory may also provide greater context in our discussion of being anti-racist; it illustrates both the constraints and conveniences that may be present when attempting to be anti-racist.
Generally speaking, a memory is a depiction of a past lived event. Every memory, no matter how impressive an individual’s memory appears to be, has some inaccurate or false information. The degree to which a memory is inaccurate or false depends on how agreeable the event is with both our past lived experiences and how relevant it is to our self perception and goals. Our memory is not built to be accurate, but rather to be as effective as possible in as many situations as possible. In this regard, the processes that are a part of memory are somewhat to blame for memory fallibility.
Memory fallibility encompasses the many ways in which our memory can be erroneous. This includes both simply forgetting information, as well as having distorted or inaccurate memories. There are times in which we misattribute the source of the information we recall (misattribution), times in which we can’t remember details from events that happened a while back (transience), and times in which we weren’t dedicating neural energy to processing information during the encoding process and thus have little ability to recall such information (absent-mindedness) (Schacter, 1999, p. 183). These are but a few ways that our memories can be erroneous. In some situations, the consequence of such error can be quite severe. There have been cases in which traumatic memories are implanted as a result of suggestive comments and questions (suggestibility) (Schacter, 1999, p 183). When the authority of the figure who is asking the questions is great enough and the ability to imagine the event is strong as well, our brain has the ability to accept this false information as past experiences.
Acknowledging why our memory is fallible is equally as important as recognizing how our memory is fallible. Our memory is built to strike a balance between accuracy and relevance. We need not remember every detail, only the details that are the most important for what we want to accomplish. Our brains have a finite amount of neural energy and therefore our memory utilizes neural energy only on processes that are the most beneficial to us. While memory fallibility is unfavorable, it is mostly a byproduct of memory processes that are functional and greatly capable.
By understanding how memory works within the self-memory system, one can begin to recognize their own memory fallibility. Memory contains not only information about the world, but also information about ourselves as well. The self memory system is where our experiences are merged with our self representations and goals. The system is made up of processes related to the working self, autobiographical memory, and episodic memory. As has been discussed previously, the working self is the active space in which a person’s goals are actualized through decisions and behaviors. Autobiographical memory, as will be expanded on further in this piece, includes the various memories across a person’s lifetime that defines a person’s selfhood and interactional role. Episodic memory, also discussed previously, is at the core of the self memory system in that it is where experiences and information are first made possible to recall.
What the self memory system tells us is that there is a close relationship between our identity and our memories. Our memories create our identity and identity guides our memories. This can be understood through the correspondence vs coherence theory originally developed by Conway in 2014. Correspondence refers to the level of which an experience corresponds to previously experienced events. Coherence refers to the level of which an experience aligns with self representations. Memories are most accurate when there is both high correspondence and high coherence. Memories are least accurate when there is low correspondence and low coherence. Most memories are believed to contain low correspondence and high coherence. When we consider this as a factor in memory fallibility, we can conclude that when events don’t fit our prior knowledge and experiences or when they don’t align with our self representations, we tend to substitute or fill in information that does.
By understanding how our memory shapes us individually, we can obtain a greater level of understanding in why we believe what we believe and how we can control that process when what we believe is incorrect. Numerous episodic memories or recollected events belonging to an individual’s lifetime are referred to as autobiographical memories. Eysenck and Keane defined autobiographical memory as an explicit memory of the past events (2005). Many of these memories are developed by certain nostalgic factors “including individual’s psychological understanding, complex spoken or sign language, remembrance of interaction with parents and others, specific style of talking, self-representation, personal perspectives and narrative comprehension and production” (Williams, Conway & Cohen, 2008). These memories that are formed from childhood episodes, and that come primarily from the adults reminiscing of their own past memories (e.g. family/community storytelling) can also be a principal factor in creating prejudices and racism. Baddeley suggested that “…our pasts always define who we are” and that by reliving and remembering our past autobiographical memories that we are somehow molded into our past (Baddeley, 2020).
Our cultural memory is also formed from the early influences that we experience from our environment and learning. Many of these schemes develop into prejudices and judgements we make about our world. “Stereotypes are naive theories about personal characteristics, which function to organize and structure experience by directing individuals to look for expectancies in their environment and advising them on how to interpret such expectancies. Thus stereotypes are a form of schematic knowledge that help organize memory by adding thematically congruent information that was not perceived, or sometimes by distorting what is perceived” (Leichtman & Ceci, 1995). When talking about anti-racism and how autobiographical memories are developed via these stereotypes learned in one’s environment, it can also be argued that these very stereotypes are what develop cultural value and internal beliefs.
The importance of culture and autobiographical knowledge go hand in hand but was not studied or talked about in the area of cognitive psychology until the 1980s. Wang and Ross, in their review article began by describing what Bartlett and others previously touched on regarding culture; “…we view culture as both a system (values, schemas, scripts, models, metaphors, and artifacts) and a process (rituals, daily routines, and practices) of symbolic mediation.” (Wang & Ross 2007)
In the brain, the construction, reconstruction and the autobiographical systems play an important role in these world views. The cell assemblies form from information from episodic elements. The frames of the structure are reinforced through the habits of reinforcing the memory by recall over periods of time and are therefore reconstructed with certain combinations and these habits begin to stack up and this becomes a life-story.
The spreading activation model (Collins & Loftus, 1975) is a helpful tool to visualize how knowledge structures, about our life stories and other semantic information, gets recalled. Visually, the model appears to be a web-like diagram with “nodes” and “links.” The nodes represent conceptual information, such as “animals,” and “food.” The links represent the strength of semantic connection between nodes. The main takeaway from the model being that the stronger semantic connection between the node, the quicker the conceptual information is to be recalled. If we discuss this in regards to autobiographical memory, we can assume that there is a strong semantic connection between our conceptual self and the conceptual information that we include in our life story. Thus when we think about ourselves, the information that is included in our life story is likely to be recalled quickly.
Another model that can be helpful in understanding how knowledge is accessed and recalled is the “Hub and Spoke” model (various authors, c. 2010s). Visually it looks like a diagram in which there is a center “hub” and connecting “spokes.” The hub represents the anterior temporal lobe and the spokes represent the respective cortexes involved in processing of knowledge. The center hub is always “on”; when retrieving information. It contains general knowledge about concepts. The spokes however, which contain more specific information about a concept or event, are only activated through certain cues. However, when the cue does activate the spoke, the necessary specific information can be recalled.
Both models together demonstrate quite well how knowledge functions in the brain. The hub-and-spoke model being a neurologically informed model that explains how spreading activation occurs in the brain. Knowledge structures span across cortexes through various synaptic networks and are activated by cues. The more familiar something is, the more likely the cue will activate activity in the spokes, the less familiar something is, the less likely the cue will activate activity in the spokes. The more spokes that are activated, the greater the connection between the concepts and the quicker recollection of said concepts. If one can strengthen the semantic connection between conceptual ideas and anti-racist ideas, the liklihood of them then thinking in an anti-racist way is increased. Similarly, if we actively try to cue the specific information related to anti-racism, we will be less likely to rely on generalizations.
The Spreading Activation and Hub and Spoke models accurately depict the nature of knowledge in the mind. Contrary to popular belief, an idea is not an individual ‘thing’, like a lightbulb going off in our brains. Really, it is a new network (Johnson, 2010). When episodic experiences (auditory, visual, emotional elements) are repeated, they (metaphorically) ‘stack up’, and these stacks are tied together with a neat little ribbon–a binding element we call language. Knowledge that was once episodic becomes semantic as repeated experiences are generalized and labeled. For instance, we may have schemas for topics such as ‘the beach’ or ‘snow days’, that generalize all of our knowledge about the beach or snow. However, not everyone lives in an environment that has access to the beach or snow, making their ‘stacks’ for this type of experience limited.
As we employ working memory, we draw from these knowledge networks, and sometimes we encounter something foreign that does not align with our schemas. In these instances, we face prediction error. Prediction error is defined as the extent to which our stacks of previous experiences prepare us for present perceptions (Kleinknecht, Personal Communication, 2020). In this way, the brain is like an algorithm runner, trying to predict the best action given the current situation. When prediction error is low, that means the experience is familiar; thus, the brain can respond to the situation automatically based on developed schemas. Biologically, this is detected through synchronous brain oscillations, or ‘resonance’ in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC). When prediction error is high however, the brain cannot revert to autopilot. Instead, another brain region called the Medial Temporal Lobe (MTL) is activated which processes the information, creating a new memory (Kesteren, Ruiter, Fernández, & Henson, 2012). Though it is more cognitively draining, high prediction error is not necessarily something to avoid. In life, this happens when we encounter environments or situations that challenge our current bodies of knowledge. For instance, a person who grew up in a snowy climate faces high prediction error when visiting a tropical beach for the first time.
High prediction error also allows us to recognize when our schemas are harmful and inaccurate. While schematization makes the world a more predictable place, psychologist Frederic Bartlett argued it can also lead to memory errors and assumptions (Baddely et al., 2020, p. 227). Many acts of implicit racism occur because we rely on culturally influenced schemas about others, and are not forced to reflect on these instances. High prediction error situations where our expectations are violated offer us opportunities to check our biases and change our schemas. In pursuit of antiracism, we ought to seek opportunities where prediction error is high. Though we are built to generalize, we are also built with the flexibility to adapt our knowledge, and the more we encounter high prediction error, the more comfortable we will become with the continuous process of challenging our assumptions and reflecting on our experiences.
In his TEDTalk “Where Good Ideas Come From”, Steven Johnson discussed the finding that people often misattribute the origin of their ideas. They tend to report that ideas happen instantaneously, in isolated contemplation; however, studies indicate that good ideas almost always happen at the conference table, fading into view after much discussion and debate (Johnson, 2010). More specifically, they happen in social instances where language is in abundance, schemas are challenged, and prediction error is high. By entering diverse, communicative environments with an open mind, we enhance our cognitive flexibility. At the same time, we let our knowledge challenge the schemas of others.
Memory and knowledge are both capable of being changed. This change can be a bad thing, when what is being added or altered is traumatic, but it can also be a good thing when what is being added or altered provides a greater cultured point of view. While our identity and autobiographical remembrances play a big role in our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, people that we interact with also have the ability to influence this understanding. Prediction error, while seemingly problematic, can lead to the most impactful change. Putting ourselves in unfamiliar environments may make us uncomfortable, but it is through the discomfort that we force ourselves to think past generalizations and consider how our memory fallibility has contributed to our erroneous schemas.
As our discussion regarding psychological insights into anti-racism comes to a close, it may be helpful to reiterate how we can all take action towards living a more anti-racist life. Every day we are faced with the opportunity to intentionally challenge our biases and disrupt our prejudiced schemas. When we are in the process of learning and consuming anti-racist material, we can enhance our working memory by using techniques from learning science such as interleaving, dual coding, spaced practiec, elaboration, and retrieval practice. When we notice ourselves acting in a racist or racially insensitive way, we should utilize meta-cognitive self-reflection to reflect and change our thoughts and behaviors. When we experience or learn information that is incongruent with our schemas (prediction error), we should challenge these schemas and try to differentiate between schematic concepts. Finally, we should take as many opportunities as we can to diversify our experiences and expand our knowledge structures; the more conversations that we have, the more familiarity we gain about different cultures, and the more new information we process, the greater the potential of being anti-racist. While our memory processes are full of tools to identify our biases, it is up to us to make the change through intent and action.
About the Authors
Molly Boggs. Both growing up in Hawaii and being proudly bi-racial has given me a unique perspective in diversity and anti-racism. As someone who has always welcomed discussions regarding race, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to discuss anti-racism through psychological lens.
Lydia King. I have never studied memory before, so this class was entirely new for me. Learning about anti-racism this way was challenging, but also very rewarding and necessary. I think my greatest takeaway from this class is the hopeful message that what is done can be undone–the brain is malleable and we can shape a new, anti-racist frame of thinking.
Eileen Myers. In Oregon I have both Oregon Trail family and “anchor” immigrant family. I am bi-lingual/cultural and have always been an advocate for the many Spanish Language communities both in my personal life as well as my career in social work. This topic of racism and anti racism has always been a part of my life work.
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