Investigations of police shootings reveal that police officers often “perceive cellphones and other non-threatening objects as weapons in the hands of a person of color,” writes Manos Tsakiris, a professor of psychology at Royal Holloway University of London who investigates the neural and cognitive mechanisms of self-awareness and social cognition.
“So do police officers misinterpret what they see, or are they actually seeing a gun where there is none?”
Is the officer’s brain simply unable to override an automatically activated stereotype and suppress the irrational fear, as classical psychology might suggest? Or is another phenomenon at work?
“If you’re black in the United States, you’re more than twice as likely as a white person to be unarmed if you’re killed in an encounter with the police. Why?” Tsakiris wonders.
New research in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy is challenging this brain-centric way of looking at the problem and placing the focus on the brain’s interdependence on physiological processes instead. ‘Embodied cognition’ recognizes that “the mind must be understood as embedded in a body, and the body as embedded in a physical, social and cultural environment.
“Reality is not simply out there for the taking, but is summoned via the constant fluctuations of our own organic matter,” says Tsakiris.
Here’s a simple example: Imagine hearing a door slam. In this scenario, you’re more likely to envision an intruder if you’re watching a scary movie than if you’re listening to relaxing music because you are making this otherwise unlikely prediction based on your fast heart-rate and the slamming of the door.