The nature of bias

If I were to ask your unbiased opinion of which of these is a female or a caucasian male brain, which would those be? ( this is from Allen Human Brain Atlas.)

Feeling ‘bias’ always carries within itself  a certain negative tinge, the innuendo that only the utmost unbiased decision would bring us closer to God or prove our mettle in decision making!  However, nature in itself feels neither regret nor shame in actively feeling bias towards the quickest, the smartest or the biggest and even perhaps the smallest, winning the prize. So why do we? And should we try to go against what is quite natural, in us and in everything around us?

‘Lateralization’ of brain function, where its two almost identical hemispheres joined by the bundle of white matter tracts (corpus callosum, if you care), perform different types of a task or different portions of the same task, depending how one defines a ‘task’, makes our brain biased in an anatomical sense that can have several repercussions to the way we think, speak and act, without us even realizing the innate bias. Most right handed people perform fine motor activity using more of their left hemisphere, the same hemisphere that has the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas for control, processing and evocation of language. Why there is this inherent bias  in the human race of being right handed (90% of us are right handed) is, not surprisingly, a hotly debated topic.

There is almost no topic that is even remotely interesting that is NOT hotly debated, though the circles that are interested deform into collapsing spirals that may lead to a black hole residing in the mind of someone truly special. It may only be a black box, that no one else understands, of course. What led to left lateralization and why should we care, has been in the the periphery of any spotlight that shines on language evolution and the possible segregation of the human brain into several smaller specialized units with dedicated duties. Like motor control, hearing is also preferentially contra-laterally processed ( left hemisphere receiving more dominant input from the right side) and right-ear deafness in early childhood could lead to language disorders, so we need to hear well to the left hemisphere for us to speak well. However, the bias for any form of human language residing to the left, is ingrained enough that those born deaf utilize their left hemisphere for sign language, as seen in functional MRIs. Remember, they probably still are mostly right handed and the jury is still out on what that had to do with the origin of the language center preferentially in the left. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, were found to prefer to make contact and find food using their right hand, as do gorillas. Orangutans tend to be more left handed. The prevalence of right-handedness in wild chimpanzees is less certain.*# I am sure this won’t be the first time I say this, whenever I do write science again, curiouser and curiouser.

Leaving curiosity aside, even in the molecules that make all living beings- the amino acids that make proteins have a preference- to be left handed or L isomers. I won’t dwell on how that happened and neither do most scientists, it is accepted to be an accident, just like living DNA chose to be a right handed helix, that coils in the clock wise direction if you look at it from the top. There is only one rule in biology,  that there is no such rule that can explain everything that lives, even in a small dead pond. So of course we have left handed people and right hemisphere centers for language, and the left handed DNA helix called Z-DNA. What is interesting to me is that one or more accidents dictated our core components and there is almost no going back from here.

So is it that surprising that the biases we pick up as children from our surroundings (‘All white people are superior, or hate us or are stupid or are really smart, or destroyed us’, depending on which part of the world you grew up in and in which era), have the potential of getting more and more ingrained as generations go by, unless some of the new generation take a chance to go out and see for themselves and find their own bias. If the original population is very influential, barring outside influence (which can also be controlled, media is by far the most biased, spineless element that society has produced) the following generations will learn what has been ‘chosen’ for them as appropriate. It is after all so comforting to go back to an old adage, every time something new starts to bother us. Of course, in good times we call it a ‘bias’ or a ‘penchant’ if it is good, but in bad times we may call it the ‘Patriot act’. An accident that becomes an integral part of our deep core, apparently, is just waiting to happen.

Should we not aim to be more than mindless molecules? Even flowers are more than just their petals and pollen! They are beautiful. The same thing that biases us to beauty, in nature or in poetry or in physics, our ‘good’ sense, can make us more than our history, more than the chemicals that make us and more than our biases. We cannot choose if we are right handed, but we can choose to find out if what we are given to believe or have always believed and would love to continue believing of other people or races or colors or religions, is right. While we can most often not help being biased, it can always be shunted towards a better way to be it. Nature did leave room for non-conformists..

P.S. examples of non conformism are bacteria who have D amino acids and us, who have D serine in our brain, both act as transmitters of useful information to the organism.

*Adrien Meguerditchian, Jacques Vauclair and William D. Hopkins. Captive chimpanzees use their right hand to communicate with each other: Implications for the origin of the cerebral substrate for languageCortex, Volume 46, Issue 1 (January 2010)

#Williams Hopkins Division of Psychobiology, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, 954 Gatewood Road, Atlanta, Georgia, does a lot of research on laterality in chimpanzees

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