The View from a Small Island: Post A The Enigma of Bias amid Two Deadly Viruses (Viri)

The Enigma of Bias amid Two Deadly Viruses (Viri): Racism and COVID 19


The mind is the brain at work, and culture is the creation of manifold individual minds composing civilization where the legacy is handed on from one generation to the next.

Charles Gillispie 1998

2020 is the year of killing pandemics: two viruses—Racism and Coronavirus infect us worldwide. The unknowns of the killing coronavirus scientifically and medically have been difficult to uncover—scientists learn as quickly as possible, but slowly. The cultural and financial impact of racism are similar—systematically hidden, murky, and disproportionately deadly. Disparity has been with us for eons. In this post, I will look at this global phenomenon of pandemics through the lens of bias. I wish to warn readers, while based upon scientific studies of memory formation available at this point in our history, my argument is conjecture. My ‘hard-science’ friends have all pushed back against my argument and I expect the scientific community will clamor for my head also.  This post is long and I apologize, but bias has a long history.

In my everyday conversations, I personally argue that the social sciences are the hard, not soft sciences—difficult to determine, difficult to fix. Humans are human and behavior is often a moving target making difficult the study by social scientists and researchers. Try as we may through naming and categorizing, we arrive at an ‘us against them‘ argument. My point is: COVID 19 has taught us in the first six months this calendar year, that the facts of chemistry, biology and immunology are not always fixed—new discoveries occur daily. For example, in early 2020, the issue of masks was questioned, studied and determined not critical to preventing the spread of COVID 19. Now mid-year of 2020, we learn the value of masks. The variables change daily, and scientists argue daily; disagreement is the ‘fixed’. What was once thought of as solidly factual now changes with greater frequency because we are in danger.

On to my topic. Bias has been relegated to the world of social science, but charging ahead, I will examine an alternative reasoning or definition of bias. Hopefully, this will lend bias (in humans) a link to the hard sciences.

The OMG moment

In 2015, now an eon ago. I was struck by a quote of British cosmologist Paul Davis who boldly claimed that cancer cells are the physical expression of deep genetic information that springs from the very nature of multicellular life. “Rather than it being a mutation, cancer is a cell’s way to cope when it undergoes certain stresses.” (Sydney Morning Herald, Marcus Strom, 3 December 2015)

While this statement caused consternation and alarm in the world of cancer researchers, it was for me a serendipitous spark to look differently at a knotty and complicated challenge I frequently encounter in my client base – bias.

(Yet, it would be another two years before I began my research and presented my paper to a gathering of social scientists at Fielding Graduate University–a  group gathered for a discussion of Social Justice)

Considering the Davis’ claim led me to the sciences in search of comparisons to determine if bias is “a cell’s way to cope when a human undergoes certain stresses.”  As I am a classically trained musician, a scholar and behavioral practitioner and am neither a cognitive scientist nor an evolutionary psychologist, I wish to clarify at the outset that my position is speculative – an intuitive hunch – and I rely upon the research and data of scientist researchers in those fields for supporting evidence. Here the science is not yet settled and requires more studies.

I will initially discuss bias as a formation or functional tool at a biological and evolutionary level – a mechanism necessary to our survival and but one which enables us to carry forward our implicit biases, positive and negative. I do not dismiss the role of culture in our everyday lives but wish to speculate how biological development promulgates and pronounces our current problems in 2020.  In subsequent posts, I will also examine concurrent data about human behavior that leads us to develop ill-informed content – implicit content carried forward in our conscious and our non-conscious lives.

Following a brief review of recent clinical studies of memory formation and retention, I build an argument that bias is a biological function, a singular competency and manifested in all humans – a survival and evolutionary tool.  The argument requires searching through new cognitive evidence made possible by technological advances and new research in memory building and memory retention.

Secondly, to understand how this mechanism operates, I look for a link between bias and survival. My argument is that bias is a structural form, a biologically developed function, and an adaptation much like walking or vision. While the content of bias changes according to the authority and influence of the existing culture, the bias mechanism in its genesis is a biological tool and a dynamic integration of the two.

Finally, moving to parallel research into the unique facility of musicality will illustrate the biological function or mechanism I refer to as biological bias. Finally, from the collaborative work of cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists, I examine the role of culture in light of new clinical data and interpretations of how we humans reason, how we learn and how we often deny information that is in our best interest. To make the transitions from biology, to musicality, to anti-vaxxers, I will break the discussion into segments. Establishing solutions to overcome these preferences is difficult, but collectively these studies provide insight into why and how unconscious bias is a “hard nut to crack”. Quoting Australian comedian Hanna Gadsby “Strap Yourself In.” (Douglas” Netflix 2020)

An altered definition of bias

Currently I comprehend bias as a judgement or predisposition either in favor of (pleasurable) or fearful of (anxiety provoking) an act, an event or person or category of persons.  In recent years, primarily the negative meaning is applied, and bias has been given a “bad rap” in almost all settings. Be it a social, educational, religious or professional occupation, bias – positively or negatively – is a constant and humans are unequivocally biased. I do not imply that all humans act upon harmful viewpoints nor bring injurious thoughts to action in our day-to-day activities. But based upon data from the Harvard University Implicit Association Test, I only maintain that we do harbor implicit attitudes and memories which are relatively inaccessible to our conscious awareness (Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002).

Many types of negative bias – all the “isms” of today’s complex world – are found in behavioral science and anthropological research, largely brought forward through cultural transmission. From the literature of anthropology, biases occur in all humans regardless of the culture into which they are born (Lumsden and Wilson 2010).  However, the most recent research by cognitive and neuroscientists shifts consideration beyond culture.  State-of-the-art technology allows scientists to look inside the brain and the technology allows researchers to create memory through contrived or manufactured experiences in the laboratory. Thus far, they have been able to find and follow how these experiences – some inciting fear, others stimulating reward – link memories which are retained for extended periods. This is the origin of a mechanism or tool I refer to as biological bias.

To understand how this mechanism operates, I look for a link between bias and biology. Is bias a biological apparatus, an evolutionary adaptation to aid survival? Does it begin with an early or induced memory as with the tiny laboratory mice whom we shall soon meet?  Nicholas Humphrey writes of phantom memory of a missing limb as an example – we experience the limb long after it has been amputated (1992).  Yet bias is more than a phantom memory – it is a structural form, a biologically developed function, and an adaptation much like walking or vision. The content of bias changes according to the authority and influence of the existing culture.  But a bias mechanism in its genesis is a biological tool and not initially a psychological state.

Genetic chain: Of mice and memory

“When the solution [of bias] is set in an evolutionary context, everything changes.” (Humphrey, 1992)  

My starting point is scientific speculation about the mechanism and workings of the brain and recent advancement in neuro-imaging technologies. Using new technology, neuroscientists Sheena Josselyn and Paul Frankland, in their research partnership between Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto and Stanford University discovered a link between two memories. In an interview with Sara Chodosh, they described their efforts to understand how memories layer upon each other. Josselyn and Frankland ran a series of tests using lab mice and they observed first the formation of memory and then a network of memories – a biological and structural composition of memory that is important to my hypothesis (Chodosh 2016).

Paul Slesinger and David Kleinfeld, also neuroscientists, in their work through the White House Brain Initiative, have collected with magnetic resonance imaging similar data about how memory forms in mice and how their brain cells communicate and transmit memory or thoughts.

The new technology, CNiFERs [pronounced sniffers], is cell-based detectors. Researchers implanted the detectors in the brain of the mice.  The CNiFERs “sense the release of specific chemical neurotransmitters in real time” [in vivo], according to Dr. Slesinger.  Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that transmit messages from one neuron to another – recollections are physically connected to one another as engrams or memory traces.  As science journalist Sara Chodosh explains this activity, “When a CNiFER comes in contact with the neurotransmitter [chemical] it is designed to detect, it fluoresces.” (Scientific American, August 2016).  The CNiFER emits light and additionally monitors multiple neurotransmitters in many cells over significant periods of time.

Josselyn and Frankland studied this overlapping memory formation in the amygdala region – the part of the brain associated with fear recollection, emotional responses and survival instincts.  After a light shock to the foot, mice formed or encoded a fear memory leaving behind a collection of excited neurons with reinforced links. Researchers discovered they could adjust the excitability of neurons during different time points – a second shock to the foot six hours later– and could artificially link those experiences of memory.  Time and excitability level of the neurons and a surge of norepinephrine link the two events.

Additional key data came from a separate trial by Josselyn and Frankland. When researchers decreased the excitability in the first group of clustered neurons while a second event (shock) was occurring, the reduction of excitability prevented the memory from forming. Excitability in the neurons then is a key factor in recollection (memory formation).

At Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (New York), trials using CNiFERs carried out a similar study but with a positive reward – a tiny reward of sugar. The team played a tone, then after a short delay, the mice were rewarded with sugar. After days of repeating the learning process – first a tone, then sugar – researchers played the tone but withheld the reward. The mice would start licking in anticipation: anticipation, pleasure and memory –  the Pavlovian conditioning.  The tone signals a reward and dopamine surges even when the reward is no longer offered. A memory (positive) is captured.

In another study by the Silva Laboratory at UCLA, Alcino Silva and colleagues found “the same principle to hold true in the hippocampus which stores more factual knowledge”(Chodosh 2016).  Two different brain regions sharing the same mechanism point to a universality of the mechanism.  As researcher Paul Frankland explained, “These experiments are starting to scratch the surface of how memories are linked in the brain” (Chodosh 2016, p.?). While these studies are the infancy stage of understanding memory recognition and retention, they are an early step in showing how we link information across time.  Silva writes that we build and retain memory upon memory ”to form a coherent view of the world” (2017, p.?).

For now, cognitive scientists as shown by the CNiFER research see the mechanisms and processes in the amygdala and hippocampus as linking external events to internal reaction and adaptive memories. A volatile activity – a shock to the foot of the mouse – releases a surge of norepinephrine and the brain retains a memory of fear.  A positive experience – a reward with sugar – releases a surge of dopamine and a pleasurable or enjoyable memory is recalled. The stimulated neurons maintain the excitability and they affect other neurons nearby. These data suggest that impulsiveness and volatility – supersets of excitability –further elevate levels of excitability thus sustaining retention and affecting memory sets even more. Testing and examining deep reaction and elevated levels of excitability will help scientists advance and understand the process and Drs. Slesinger and Kleinfeld believe research in this direction will help us better understand addiction and how to treat it (Slesinger & Kleinfeld Labs 2016).

Back in 1992 – the “dark ages” of imaging technology, Nicholas Humphrey wrote, “I am still maintaining that to have a sensation involves the making of a ‘sensory response’” (Humphrey 1992).  In other words, an activity – whether painful or pleasurable – begins as a physical event assisted by a chemical release and is now a permanent brain activity. Humphrey uses the mental experience of a phantom memory phenomenon. The physical limb is removed, but the memory and sensation of the leg remains. “As William Blake might have put it (if he had been following the discussion): ’corporal sentiments’ have become ’cerebral sentiments’” (Humphrey 1992).

To summarize: at this point, with only rudimentary knowledge of memory functions, I make a hypothetical leap based upon new technological (CNiFER) research.  The brain stores its memories into a network of thought.   Fearful experiences emit norepinephrine and pleasurable ones, dopamine. We like an event or we don’t  – we build and file away a spectrum of fearful or of pleasurable experiences – in a biologically formed mechanism or function. And how does this function operate?  Experiences, as found in the studies with mice, are captured into a network of memories that are either painful or pleasurable.  Echoing and resonating (excited) neurons carry forward their experience into future encounters simultaneously exciting surrounding neurons.  Neurons retain their excitability and with newer experiences, additional memories are formed advancing the way forward.  Researchers call this a roadmap – neural paths in the brain, a network of memories that eventually form our view of the world (Silva 2017). Over time the brain reacts to future and similar events as though they were the original ones and embeds those in the mechanism or function I call biological bias, or as defined by Konrad Lorenz, ”biological behavior” (Tinbergen 1963) – bias composed of or structured by fearful or pleasurable memories.  (Fig. 1)

Next week we move to musicality – an example where I feel at home. Then in subsequent posts we will look closely at culture today–the impact of antivaxers and racism

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