Sze Chai Kwok, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke Kunshan University
A Duke Kunshan neuroscience professor has been awarded $25,000 to fund research into the age-old issue of prejudice.
The Bass Connections grant will finance research into the neural underpinnings of in-group bias, as well as test-driving an established practice called neurofeedback in reducing it.
“Through this study, we want to deepen our understanding of prejudice and to control it by neural modulation,” said Sze Chai Kwok, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at DKU, who is leading the study along with James Moody, a sociology professor at Duke University in the U.S.
Previous research has shown that the act of categorizing people according to factors such as gender, nationality, race or political views, and favoring people from one’s own group over out-groupers, can correlate with brain activity.
Kwok’s research will focus on regulating this brain activity to mitigate in-group bias. The process will start with assessing participants’ in-group bias levels using an implicit association test, which provides measurements for implicit association between concepts, such as nationality, and evaluations, such as good or bad.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity, will then be used to identify what brain activity looks like when the participant is experiencing bias against out-groupers.
Following that, participants will undergo a brain training exercise, designed to reduce levels of bias using rewards. This will involve them looking at a simple image of a disk and mentally maximizing its size in order to receive a reward. The image’s size will be controlled by the participant’s brain activity, without them knowing it. It will grow larger when that activity is similar to an unbiased brain state and will shrink otherwise. The idea is that prolonged brain training of this type will lead the subject to unconsciously prefer the brain patterns associated with the unbiased state, which could be measured with a second round of implicit bias tests.
“By inducing changes in brain activity patterns, real-time neurofeedback is effective in modulating confidence and reducing phobia for common fears, all beyond our consciousness,” said Kwok. “We believe it has the potential to downregulate implicit bias as well.”
The Bass Connections grant is an annual award, named after its founding donors Anne and Robert Bass, which funds collaborative research involving faculty and students into research that explores pressing societal challenges.