Are white people perceived as smart?

Amit Atkins, Paul Whalen and a group of fellow campaigners have a difficult job: They are supposed to scare people without them noticing. A contradiction in terms? Not necessarily.

At least that can probably be confirmed by anyone who has ever had a somehow inexplicable queasy feeling - and only later discovered a rather subconsciously perceived cause of this fear. Apparently there are ways and means of disturbing the brain without its user becoming logically and mentally aware of any danger.

Amit Atkins investigated one of these possibilities - but first he and his colleagues from Columbia University sorted a field of volunteers with the help of a questionnaire into rather carefree candidates who, according to their own statements, are upset by little, as well as participants who are also declared to be in everyday situations react easily frightened and quickly suspect an unpleasant threat behind many things.

With the help of functional magnetic resonance tomography, they watched the brain at work while they experimentally alarmed their rabbit-hearted and fearless test subjects with an infallible trick: the presentation of fear-distorted human faces. Such sights, so the knowledge from long years of fear-inducing research, bring fear in every reasonably emotionally normal test participant. Even when fear-distorted grimaces are only visible for a split second, only to be covered by a neutral stimulus: whether briefly presented and unconsciously perceived or shown long enough for conscious recognition - a panicked human face always triggers the observer's dull, subconscious discomfort out.

Such a subconscious state of anxiety is revealed by increased brain activity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped, cherry stone-sized emotional center in the brain. She is known to be instrumental in creating feelings such as fear. As expected, the amygdalae of the candidates also worked at full speed in the experiments of the researchers working with Atkins, as soon as fear was reassured by them with ultra-briefly shown, consciously imperceptible fearful faces [1]. During the experiment, the participants had no idea what was actually happening to them: They were persuaded to pay attention to the skin color of faces that appeared to be faded in for a long time.

Interestingly, the brain reaction differed between those previously classified as relatively fear-free and the generally more fearful subjects, who were all unconsciously frightened: declared fearful rabbits activated the basolateral part of the amygdala significantly more. Apparently, this lowered their fear and reaction thresholds, according to the researchers, and unconsciously made them ready to react right down to the tips of their hair to whatever dangers they might face. In any case, in the color recognition tests immediately following the experiment, they showed themselves to be much more reactive than the fearless people who were also unconsciously bothered with terrifying faces.

The amygdala therefore reveals a lot about the general fear threshold, which differs from person to person, the researchers conclude. They now want to focus their attention more on this brain's own fear level indicator in order to perhaps gain new knowledge about pathological anxiety disorders.

Paul Whalen of the University of Wisconsin and his colleagues also focused on the amygdala and its reaction to the sight of panicked faces [2]. In their tomographic studies, however, the researchers were more interested in the qualities of the hodgepodge of stimuli that cause the almond kernel to be vigorous and frighten people. What is it that makes a terrifyingly frightened face? Which of the individual distorted parts of the face are actually the most frightening for the viewer?

Your guess: Fear arises when you see the white in the other person's eye - the more, the more terrible. Therefore, they showed their voluntary candidate troops pictures of neutral or friendly faces, but cheated short, not consciously perceptible pictures of stencil-like eye areas into the presentation. The eyes looked wide open once fearfully - so they showed a lot of white eyes - or were friendly narrowed like a smile.

The results left nothing to be desired in terms of clarity: the more white the eyes, the more violent the startled amygdala reaction of the candidates. The negative, on the other hand, is not very frightening - a torn pair of false-colored eyes with white pupils in the relatively extended black eyes "white" background.

Even in the frightened participants in Whalen's experiment, the basolateral section of the amygdala in particular proved to be responsible for stirring up unconscious states of fear. It is almost certain that this responds not only to wide-eyed eyes, but also to some other subtle stimuli that, in the course of evolution, subconsciously perceiving some people has warned of some unrecognized trouble.

This article can be found in Spektrum - Die Woche, December 18, 2004