One team of scientists has found a way to do it. Will their work lead to a brighter tomorrow?
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On February 26, 2012, an unarmed young man was shot after buying Skittles and an Arizona Fruit Punch. The shot ended his life and sparked a nationwide discussion, turning a hooded sweatshirt into a symbol of race relations in America. Everyone knows the story of Trayvon Martin and his shooter, George Zimmerman. We’re familiar with the details because his death reignited racial tensions that had been smoldering since the Rodney King riots shook Los Angeles in 1992. Over the next three years, news of other slain teens splintered the country, drew protesters into the streets and forced Americans to acknowledge that color never stopped mattering.

All the while, in a lab at Northwestern University, cognitive neuroscientists and social psychologists worked at loosening the evolutionary roots of racism and sexism. Armed with psychometric tests, brain wave recordings and a small batallion of subjects, the research team sought to use subliminal cues to help people become less biased — in their sleep.

“This was before all the outrage over Trayvon started,” said Jessica Creery, a sleep researcher involved in the project, “but something had been bubbling for a while, and we all noticed it.”

Not only did the timing of the study work; the study itself worked, too. Unlocking ingrained biases, it appeared, hinged on unlocking sleep.

Sleeping your way to the top

For most of us, sleep is a time to positively, assertively and constructively do nothing. The dreaming mind may race, and automatic processes may keep the body and brain chugging along, but shut-eye is a break from deadlines, good posture, small talk and other expectations that come with being awake.

Except, that is, for the growing community of people unwilling to accept rest as an idle time-suck. For them, sleep is a chance to brainstorm the next big idea, write melodies and pilot their own fantasies.

Known as “consciousness hackers,” these individuals take advantage of the ways in which the mind becomes tweakable when it loses the protective seal of waking cognition. Both lucid dreamers and hypnogogic artists, for example, mine the transitional state between sleep and wakefulness where the semi-aware mind can exploit dreams. While consciousness hackers vary in their goals, the overarching pursuit is one of personal improvement.

The Northwestern study introduced another type of consciousness hacking — one that targets a different state, with a different goal. They manipulated deep sleep to chip away at the ways we affiliate with others of like mind, or with those of the same racial background or those hailing from the same economic class. Deep-seated biases, ingrained through collective culture, lurk in even the most earnest liberal soul. Throughout our lives, we may fight them — with varying degrees of success.

Humans have a natural tendency to distinguish “people like us” from others, a gift leftover from our hunter-gatherer days.

Or, if you’re a scientist at Northwestern, you endeavor to detach, dismantle and disintegrate these prejudices. Let’s call it “bias-hacking.” While manipulating sleep for social good may sound like idealistic puffery, it’s actually feasible and pragmatic. So long as hackers and app developers keep hacking and developing, there’s no reason bed-based bias-hacking isn’t on the horizon.

The unawake mind isn’t a monolith sitting still in a single state. As the brain marches through its sleep cycles, it takes on different roles. To hack different states of consciousness, then, we must respect and understand the sleeping brain’s shifting neural physiologies. The latest research depicts the deep-sleeping brain as a quiet workhorse. Slowed to a electrical trickle, it takes a break from absorbing and interpreting the outside world and, instead, focuses on strengthening what we’ve learned during waking hours. Important memories solidify; garbage thoughts meet their maker.

It’s during this powered-down period that associations made during wakefulness gel and get stitched into the subconscious. If hypnagogia is the mind-state of choice for creative types, then bias-hackers get dibs on deep sleep.

Exploring the basis of bias

Evolutionary psychologists explain biases as subconscious flaws in perception that inform how we understand the world. Like any other habit, they’re hard to break. Humans have a natural tendency to distinguish “people like us” from others, a gift leftover from our hunter-gatherer days, when survival was the foremost squad goal.

Using psych-speak, the tendency is called “in-group bias,” and it sneakily shapes our attitudes and behavior. Consider a seminal 1950s study in which psychologists asked fans of rival football teams to recount the same game and were greeted with different sets of facts. The other team, whichever it was, clearly played dirty, fans said.

We can’t scrap biases altogether, but can we tinker with them?

With a few centuries of societal reinforcement, biases take shape, manifesting as stereotypes strong enough to withstand laws and cultural movements designed to unseat them. Black lives matter to a lot of people, and yet they keep getting cut short. Marriage equality was a hard-fought win, but moving beyond the notion of straight as “normal” will be much harder. Enlightened men love the idea of smart women, yet, under the gun, they reveal themselves as fairweather feminists.

Despite our inability to dismantle systemic prejudice, recent psychology and neuroscience research depicts social biases as also somewhat malleable, at least at a neural level. For example, Jay Van Bavel, a social psychologist at NYU, uses neuroimaging to see how brain activity changes when people join new, diverse groups, particularly in a competitive context, such as basketball or trivia night.

In one 2014 study, Van Bavel and colleagues monitored activity changes in brain regions involved in emotion and facial recognition — important processes when it comes to distinguishing your clique from people who don’t matter. The brain scans and behavioral data suggested that bias-holders quickly saw their new team as their “in” group, disregarding racial lines that previously mattered.

In other words, they swapped out old biases for new, contextually relevant ones.

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Unseating our deep-seated instincts

We can’t scrap biases altogether, but can we tinker with them? If so, how do we proceed?

Enter the Northwestern project, a collaborative effort between three labs. The study itself was simple in design. What its designers hoped to show, however, was big enough to throw a dagger in decades of human behavior analysis.

First, researchers used a standardized psych test (called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT) to assess the strength of two widely held biases: women as non-scientific and black men as bad. Next came “non-bias” training. Participants watched pairs of words and pictures flash across a screen. The word-picture pairs either reinforced or contradicted one of the two biases. Whenever participants saw pairs that contradicted the biases, they were told to press a button; in turn, they heard a distinct sound that was specific to that bias.

“We see people portrayed as dumb, ditzy girls and violent black men.” said Creery. “It’s not like we learn them because we’re encountering people like this. These biases are just so ingrained, and repeated over and over again in the media and in our everyday lives.”

Next up, the “cueing” phase. Participants took 90-minute naps, as researchers monitored their sleeping brain activity using EEG (electroencephalography). Once participants entered deep sleep, researchers replayed the distinct signature sounds associated with the bias contradictions. Each participant heard one (but not both) of the two sounds associated with scientific women or good black men over a 20- to 30-minute period.

With deep-sleep reinforcements, judgments started to unravel.

Participants re-took the IAT immediately after their naps and again a week later. Their results indicated weakened bias with respect to the stereotype they’d been cued to overcome during deep sleep. But, and here’s a very important point, they exhibited no change in the bias toward the other stereotype — the one they weren’t “trained” to overcome.

In other words, by itself, the non-bias training had little-to-no impact. With deep-sleep reinforcements, however, judgments started to unravel. This method is called memory reactivation, and it’s hardly new. But this study was the first of its kind to erode perceptual habits that have hardened into the memory.

Bias reduction was no small feat; in fact, the results were surprising enough that editors at the journal Science only published the study after the team proved they could replicate the results. With a new fleet of nappers, they did just that. Scientists have long seen biases as too wily, too far outside awareness, to fall under the influence of cognitive control.

The fact that the team was able to produce the same results from two different focus groups speaks volumes.

Taking it to market

This isn’t the first time so-called “brain training” has promised to make us better human beings. Consider Neuroracer, a therapeutic video game designed to help aging brains reclaim cognitive control. It, too, performed well in clinical trials. But, now, mass market brain-training games such as Lumosity have come under fire as heavy on claims and thin on results.

Can bias-hacking bridge the great divide between the lab and real world?

“I don’t think it’s that far-fetched,” said Creery.

Assuming the results are truly reproducible outside the lab, there are certainly commercial possibilities. It’s not hard to imagine a company or government agency hiring a bias-hacking firm to guide employees through an afternoon of non-bias training. That night, the employees follow instructions (headphones, phone app, subliminal sounds) to reinforce the day’s session during deep sleep.

“It would be very difficult to teach somebody to be not biased, if they’re happy with their bias.”

It’s not hard to see the value for organizations that pride themselves in creating a diverse workforce. In the private sector, global corporations could proudly announce themselves to be “bias-free.” In the public sector, imagine a police force that’s been certified by such a system.

Indeed, removing — or, at least, tamping down — bias in law enforcement and other split-second-decision sectors (e.g., emergency medicine, military service) is the most obvious application. In the heat of the moment, snap judgments based on mental shortcuts naturally inform decisions. Some psychologists call these mental shortcuts “heuristics,” irrational beliefs that, though rooted in all sorts of biases, still serve a practical function.

Unfortunately, as we know too well, deeply held, subconscious biases may reinforce inaccurate, detrimental assumptions on race, gender, ethnic and religious beliefs. Before you know it, neighborhood watchmen are shooting unarmed teenagers.

On a smaller scale, bias-hacking might eventually eliminate what some researchers call microaggressions, those minor subconscious reactions that might embarrass even the most well-meaning “Kumbaya” singer. “When people notice that maybe they clutch their bag a little bit closer when a black male walks by, and it makes them feel bad,” Creery suggests, “or when people read something written by a man and are more impressed by it.”

Criminals who truly regret their actions would have every reason to prune their biases while dozing behind bars.

That’s not to say a single, sublimation-filled nap will ever wipe out a lifelong habit of racially charged purse-clutching. Presumably, it’s a gradual process. And, even in theory, bias-hacking has limits. It requires complementary non-bias training. What’s more, it only works as a means of mind control for consenting minds. Psychopaths need not apply.

“You need to have some intention to want to get rid of a bias,” said Creery. “I don’t think we could brainwash anyone because if, while you’re doing the training part of the task, you feel angry that you’re doing it, then reactivating [the training] during sleep is probably just going to reactivate the anger, and that’s not what we want to happen. I think that it would be very difficult to teach somebody to be not biased if they’re happy with their bias.”

Consent, then, may be the big hurdle. It may be perpetrators of hate crimes most in need of bias reversal, but most will balk at the therapy. But what of those who condemn their own crimes? Isn’t it possible to imagine bias-reversal as part of inmate rehabilitation? Criminals who truly regret their actions would have every reason to prune their biases while dozing behind bars, hoping to shave some time off their sentences.

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Hacking into the future

The Northwestern study only involved one episode of deep-sleep cueing. The next step, Creery says, might be cueing for several nights in a row. And, she adds, they can’t rule out the possibility, for example, that reducing one bias might amplify another. The brain is an abstruse organ with a web of connected functions, and it’s important to understand how pushing one lever affects others.

Creery and her colleagues' work has both earned adulation and raised eyebrows from other scientists. Admirers see the research as an incredible discovery, while critics are quick to question the procedure’s lasting effects. But even their skeptical peers have commended the study as, if nothing else, a good start with a great goal.

Finally, there’s the very issues of morality and autonomy. No matter how well-intentioned, bias-hacking, taken to its extreme, might resemble dystopian social conditioning and brainwashing. Given the rapid growth of technology, the widespread adoption of wearables and even the rise of virtual reality, is it that hard to imagine a future of suburban shopping malls featuring juice bars, SoulCycles and bias-hacking centers side-by-side? Or how about court-ordered bias training after exchanging a few heated words with a stranger at a stoplight?

Putting this fictionalized future aside, we already use therapeutic interventions that, in some way, resemble bias-hacking. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) hinges on reorienting one’s frame of mind around a given issue, be it anxiety or insomnia. Licensed hypnotists claim to bypass the conscious mind to edit out vices and traumas.

What’s the major difference? For one, in this new future, we’re doing it with our eyes closed and our guards down. Though convenient, that alone might be too frightening a prospect for the average, mildly biased citizen to accept.