Neural Pathways at Work: How Our Brains Deal with Diversity

Neuroplasticity has become my new favorite word. Almost my mantra.

It explains all. It explains why we have the habits in our lives that we do. The good habits. The bad habits. And just the way way we think about life. I think it’s as good an explanation as any for how we deal with diversity in our lives and develop biases towards others.

What is neuroplasticity? Medicinenet has one of my favorite definitions: "The brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life."

Or, to put it in less scientific ways, what you do over and over again gets wired in your brain as a pathway; when you stop doing that thing over and over again, the pathway lessens.

Ever had the experience of driving to a certain place repeatedly for years - an old job, an old house or apartment, a gym, a child’s daycare provider? Back in the day, when you went to that place regularly, your car could practically drive itself to that particular location. But years later, if you attempt to go to that same place, it’s not as automatic a drive. You have to think about where to turn. You may even make a wrong turn or two.

In a simplistic way, that’s an example of how a neural pathway works.

Only, it doesn’t just work that way with actions. It also works that way with thoughts. If every time you see a picture of something you have a bad reaction too, you have a bad reaction whenever you see a similar picture.

A friend of mine, for example, had a very ugly bout with chocolate-covered cherries as a young child. She’s not physically allergic to either chocolate or cherries. But even though she is now in her forties, when she sees that cherry-chocolate combination in so much as a shower gel scent at a department store, she has a negative, involuntary response of revulsion. Every time my friend has that reaction to all things that connect chocolate and cherries, she reinforces having that reaction.

Now because my friend doesn’t run a candy factory, or engage in a profession where her hating on chocolate/cherry combos causes undue harm to others, it’s not that big a deal (and actually kind of amusing since I love all fruit dipped in chocolate.)

But in the arena of diversity, think about if instead of the negative connection she made toward a specific food item, she made it toward a particular group of people.

I’d argue that explains pretty much every bias that every person has about other people.

People develop a habit of how they think about other people and those habits get reinforced by what they see on the media and by how the other people around them reinforce those same points of view.

One of my challenges in the work I do in diversity-- as a writer and as a diversity trainer-- is getting people to unpack their biases about everything, starting with how they define diversity.

For me, diversity is about difference with race and gender being only the "big ticket" items that people associate with diversity.

I try to get people to see that space between their perception or opinion of something and what that something really is.

Every bias, perception, even opinion, almost always starts off with someone presenting that viewpoint as fact.

For example, repeatedly in my life I've had whites tell me that they have grown up being told negative stereotypes about blacks but that as an adult, they no longer think that way. When I reply that I was raised with negative stereotypes about whites that I had to tackle as an adult, almost always the response is "You mean there are negative stereotypes about us?"

Yep, neural pathways at work.

The paths we take seem normal, natural and effortless. Even when those pathways alter as we age. But we still have trouble seeing that others have equally strong thinking patterns that can be as braided wire rope on a bridge.

The thing I love about neuroplasticity as it does relate to diversity - and discrimination - is that theoretically, those paths can change over time.

And I believe they do.

I’ve seen people change entire viewpoints of how they see other people because they got to know people within that group. It doesn’t happen overnight. And that’s not to say that those biases don’t make a guest appearance whenever there is an unpleasant trigger or a former association.

We each have the ability to notice our own pathways and habitual way of thinking as it relates to other people. We can notice it when we jump to conclusions about our co-workers. We can notice it in the patterns of how we evaluate our subordinates when annual reviews roll around. We can even notice it when we assume certain "facts" about why our bosses behave the way they do and make the decisions they make.

Just taking a moment to ask if you’re thinking that way because it’s the same shortcut across the grass you always take, can be all it takes to lessen a neural pathway that is neither helpful nor particularly accurate.

The science of thinking gives me hope. It gives me hope that if the brain is more plastic than iron, the mind can be open to different ways of viewing people in the workplace fairly and as objectively as the human mind (and heart) allow.