A Constant Battle: The Conscious, Subconscious, Diversity and Inclusion – Blog #1
Sarmin Akter UA’22, Branden Eggan, James Stellar,
I, Sarmin, remember the excitement I felt when I first came to visit the University at Albany. The different faces, rainbow flags around campus, the sight of people of color. Being from the Bronx, this made me feel right at home. I thought I’d found the perfect place to attend college but unfortunately that excitement was soon lost as I started to realize that diversityI sawand actual inclusion were two separate things.
I came to the college as an Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) student (see the blog post by Martinez, Echevarria and Stellar if you’re interested in program details). This program takes 200 NYC students and places them in a pre-college bootcamp to acclimate us to this foreign world. We found strength in our similarities, our skin color, our backgrounds, and I feel like I would have dreaded my first yearon campus without this program. What if I’d never found my group? Being South-Asian I was used to being not “Asian” enough for the Asian organizations and I wasn’t Desi enough for those cliques either. I’m clearly not Hispanic, Black or Caucasian so those groups were not even an option.I was lucky. I found friends in my EOP peers but as weeks passed, I started to notice that our friend group wasn’t growing, neither was that of the other groupsin EOP. If we weren’t the only students with a diverse background on campus, then why were we still sitting with the same old group in the campus center each day? Additionally, why did it seem that most of the faces in each clique were, well, the same? This just didn’t feel right.
I had to fight back. I joined the first Multicultural Sorority in the nation, Mu Sigma Upsilon Sorority, Incorporated. Up to that point, this organization didn’t even exist on campus. My chapter sisters and I worked hard tobring this organization to our University. Werefused to take no for an answer and proved that this organization was a necessary addition. Mu Sigma Upsilon iswhere I finally found a place I felt like I belonged – a place that accepted everyone regardless of race, religion or creed. A place that turns diversity in to inclusion.
With all of these experiences, I started thinking. Why was it that at the Block Party event where hundreds of campus organizations were represented at tables, everyone at each table looked the same? The Spanish Club, all latino women, the Math Club, all Asian students, the Ultimate Frisbee Club, all jocks. What’s more is that I couldn’t even join half of these clubs because they were exclusive! The Young Democrats Club? Muslim Student Association? Jewish Student Union? Even with having an interest in some of these groups, I felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. I even felt unwelcome around the people who looked like me because I didn’t feel South Asian enough in my own skin.
As my freshman year continued on campus, no matter where I was, I couldn’t stop ending up in these situations where people were sticking to their own crew. Clubs, classes, even the student staff working at each separate restaurant in the campus center. It didn’t end. So the question is, why? Why do we naturally form these groups? It almost seemed to be happening naturally, outside of any logical thought. All of the colleges, clubs, and students strive for inclusion. No one that I’ve met on campus would ever say otherwise, but why do we see this in everyone’s actions? Perhaps it’s natural, perhaps it’s the way our brains are built.
It turns out that the human brain is assembled in a way that both separates us and joins us to other species. Of the three main parts of our brain, the brainstem is the most evolutionarily old or conserved, and this region is responsible for the basic things such as breathing, posture, and coordinating the complicated patterns of walking to ensure we don’t trip and fall. The next division is the subcortical region that houses our unconscious brain processes. In addition to relaying information from the body to our consciousness brain processes, this region is known as the emotional headquarters of the brain. Fear, pleasure, anxiety, euphoria – all of these feelings and many more stem from activity in what is called the limbic system, a subcortical set of structures that gives feeling to our decision-making behaviors.
The final major division of the brain, the neocortex, is the most recently evolved and sets us apart from all other species. This region is the location of language, higher order thought, and symbolic logic. It allows us to make decisions far more complex than how do I find the cheese at the end of this maze I’ve run twenty times. Rather, as humans we can close our eyes and see our way through the maze without even physically entering it. We can be motivated to get to the cheese more if we’re told it’s a piece of chocolate cake. We can use or logic to navigate around or even up and over a dead end in the maze where as the mouse may never make it.
So how does this discussion apply to decision-making outside of being a mouse in a maze? Communication between the conscious brain or cortex and the unconscious brain or subcortical regions is what that gives us the ability to make truly complex decisions. That our logic and our emotional headquarters are constantly communicating, is evidenced in brain scans that shows the brain area activity when a person is placed in a scanner and there is an explosion of imaged colors throughout both of these general areas. What is relevant here and needs to be the subject of more brain scan studies is when there are two battling regions in the unconscious, say the classic battle of pain and pleasure, and it is the conscious brain that acts to select which decision option is more lucrative and that results in an action.
Let me give you an example, right now I am thinking about changing my major from Human Biology to Business. A year ago I thought that I would find myself at a Medical College following graduation but I’ve had experiences that have shifted me down a completely different path. Why Business? Is it because it’s exciting or I have a new passion for it? Are there more job opportunities or space for my creative mind? Or is it fear of not succeeding in medical school. Or maybe a natural aversion to the site of blood. I can’t necessarily answer this question because of all of these inputs from my unconscious brain – fear, anxiety, risk, reward, pleasure etc. weighing in on this decision. All of this information living outside of my conscious thought but feeding in to my conscious decision-making process. I can’t shut anything off, I can’t quiet these silent voices, the constant information exchange between the conscious and unconscious. But you know what I can do? I can be the best Business major that I can be at the University… and complete those Pre-Med requirements just in case!
If you’re still interested at this point, you’re probably thinking that I haven’t yet mentioned how this all relates to diversity. Well, we are going to get there in Blog #3 and feature the interplay between the conscious and unconscious processing related brain areas, with the unheard voices in our head influencing our words and actions. But first we need to discuss the underlying brain circuitry in more detail and that will be done in Blog #2 as we figuratively dissect and walk through a few key cortical and subcortical regions that are in constant battle for the spotlight. As pleasure takes on pain, risk takes on reward, and much more, to drive our consciousness decision-making in multiple regions of our cortex as we hope to ultimately make the right decision. But first we must investigate the balance in this connectivity, and that is the point of this series of three blog posts.