A new scientific study has found that you can unlearn your prejudices during your sleep. In fact, any bias that you have can be unlearned, whether it’s something trivial (like a bias for a particular type of music) or something far more serious (like racial and sexual bias).
All your biases can be unlearnt in as little as a short nap.
A study led by Xiaqing Hu at Northwestern University shows that a simple sleep technique can completely rewrite your biases.
The study targeted “implicit biases”— attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Studies show, for instance, that 80% of people are biased against the elderly and that the vast majority of people are biased towards either black or white faces.
Hu says, “These biases can affect us even when we have the good intention to avoid such biases. Moreover, we are often not aware of their influences on our behaviour.”
Hu’s test shows that we can change these biases, including racial and sexual biases, during a person’s sleep.
Learning (or un-learning, as is the case here) is a simple case of repetition. That’s the same for you’re asleep as when you’re awake. When you learn something, neurons in your brain start firing to make new connections with each other. Once you hit the sack, those neurons fire again in a similar pattern to when you were awake and learning.
Recent studies show that we can manipulate the reactivation of memories using sound clues.
Researchers played certain sounds while showing participants a picture of a different face associated with a certain word. When the participant was asleep the scientists played them the same sound. This led the memories associated with those faces to be reactivated over and over.
It’s almost like a mantra. When we repeat a mantra we train our mind to learn the truth behind that mantra. But here the learning is done during sleep.
Biases are learned. Racism, sexism and other form of prejudices are learned throughout an individual’s life. The problem is that the neurons that fire those prejudices keep getting reactivated. But using Hu’s technique we can learn to activate a different memory, to learn a different bias (or no bias at all).
Here’s how the test was carried out…
“We recruited 40 participants from Northwestern University. The participants were Caucasians aged 18 to 30. We started by measuring their baseline implicit social biases using an implicit association test (IAT)
An IAT test is a measure within social psychology designed to detect the strength of a person’s automatic association between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory.
The next step was to have the participants go through counter-stereotype training. Participants were shown pictures of faces paired with words that countered a specific stereotype, such as racism and sexism. Specifically, we showed female faces with words associated with math or science, and black faces paired with pleasant words like cheer, smile, honor.
During the session, we also played sound cues that became associated with these pairs. Whenever the participant made a fast and correct response to counter-bias stimuli pairs – for instance, associating female faces with science words or black faces with good words – they heard a particular sound cue. One sound was for gender biases, another for racial biases.
When the training had been completed, participants took a ninety minute nap. While napping they were played one of the two sound cues, which they had learnt to associate with the faces they had been shown.
When the participants woke up they were again given an implicit association test. The results showed that the participants’ biases had significantly decreased, and that their racial and sexual stereotyping had been reduced.
The researchers were surprised by the results…
“We were surprised that this sleep-based intervention was so powerful when participants woke up: the biases were reduced by at least 50 percent relative to the pre-sleep bias level. But we were also surprised at how long the effect lasted. At the one-week follow-up test, the sleep-based intervention was still effective.”
The results are clear: racism and sexism could effectively be ended in as little as 90 minute nap.