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Rich Brains, Poor Brains?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 3, 2008

From a University of California, Bekeley press release, “EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids,” by Robert Sanders.

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University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.

In a study recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.

Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) – basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain – like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.

“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”

Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, “those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”

Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. “We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive.”

Boyce, a pediatrician and developmental psychobiologist, heads a joint UC Berkeley/UBC research program called WINKS – Wellness in Kids – that looks at how the disadvantages of growing up in low socioeconomic circumstances change children’s basic neural development over the first several years of life.

“This is a wake-up call,” Knight said. “It’s not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.

“It’s not a life sentence,” Knight emphasized. “We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices.”

Kishiyama, Knight, Boyce and their colleagues selected 26 children ages 9 and 10 from a group of children in the WINKS study. Half were from families with low incomes and half from families with high incomes. For each child, the researchers measured brain activity while he or she was engaged in a simple task: watching a sequence of triangles projected on a screen. The subjects were instructed to click a button when a slightly skewed triangle flashed on the screen.

The researchers were interested in the brain’s very early response – within as little as 200 milliseconds, or a fifth of a second – after a novel picture was flashed on the screen, such as a photo of a puppy or of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

“An EEG allows us to measure very fast brain responses with millisecond accuracy,” Kishiyama said.

The researchers discovered a dramatic difference in the response of the prefrontal cortex not only when an unexpected image flashed on the screen, but also when children were merely watching the upright triangles waiting for a skewed triangle to appear. Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar, Kishiyama said, to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.

“When paying attention to the triangles, the prefrontal cortex helps you process the visual stimuli better. And the prefrontal cortex is even more involved in detecting novelty, like the unexpected photographs,” he said. But in both cases, “the low socioeconomic kids were not detecting or processing the visual stimuli as well. They were not getting that extra boost from the prefrontal cortex.”

“These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage,” Kishiyama said. “Yet, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school performance.”

The researchers suspect that stressful environments and cognitive impoverishment are to blame, since in animals, stress and environmental deprivation have been shown to affect the prefrontal cortex. UC Berkeley’s Marian Diamond, professor emeritus of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance. And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

“In work that we and others have done, it really looks like something as simple and easily done as talking to your kids” can boost prefrontal cortex performance, Boyce said.

“We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families for not talking to their kids – there are probably a zillion reasons why that happens,” he said. “But changing developmental outcomes might involve something as accessible as helping parents to understand that it is important that kids sit down to dinner with their parents, and that over the course of that dinner it would be good for there to be a conversation and people saying things to each other.”

“The study is suggestive and a little bit frightening that environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development,” said Silvia Bunge, UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology who is leading the intervention studies on prefrontal cortex development in teenagers by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Boyce’s UBC colleague, Adele Diamond, showed last year that 5- and 6-year-olds with impaired executive functioning, that is, poor problem solving and reasoning abilities, can improve their academic performance with the help of special activities, including dramatic play.

Bunge hopes that, with fMRI, she can show improvements in academic performance as a result of these games, actually boosting the activity of the prefrontal cortex.

“People have tried for a long time to train reasoning, largely unsuccessfully,” Bunge said. “Our question is, ‘Can we replicate these initial findings and at the same time give kids the tools to succeed?'”

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For a related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of I.Q.,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” “The Perils of “Being Smart” (or Not So Much),” and “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids.”

Posted in Education, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Situationism in the News – October

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 18, 2008

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of the Situationist news items of October 2008. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From Battle of Ideas: “The dubious science of evolutionary psychology

“Evolutionary psychology prides itself on being a valid, scientific account of human psychology (and behaviour) by tying itself to the scientific theory of natural evolution. But evolution is an explanation of physical, anatomical traits . . . The plausibility of evolutionary psychology rests on the question of whether psychological attributes (patriotism, altruism, romantic love, aesthetic judgments, logical reasoning, recollecting your grandmother’s birthday, and studying to get into college) are analogous to anatomical structures in their origins and in their functioning. If they are not analogous, then it is a mistake to explain them in terms of evolutionary theory which explains physical, anatomical features determined by biological mechanisms.” Read more . . .

From CNN Money: “How to rebuild America

“America can pull through the current economic crisis with a dose of political maturity and a bit of luck. Success will mean the end of the Reagan era, of an ideology that has brought the country to its knees.” Read more . . .

From The Independent: “Scientists prove it really is a thin line between love and hate

“Love and hate are intimately linked within the human brain, according to a study that has discovered the biological basis for the two most intense emotions.” . . . “Scientists studying the physical nature of hate have found that some of the nervous circuits in the brain responsible for it are the same as those that are used during the feeling of romantic love – although love and hate appear to be polar opposites.” Read more . . .

From ObserverThis is Your Brain on Politics

“U.S. presidential candidates have been stumping for nearly two years with their every move being analyzed and reported ad nauseum. Logically, voters should be able to tap into lots of information when they make their decisions come November.  But it turns out there’s a lot more going on when we step behind the curtain to cast our ballot.” Read more . . .

From ScienceNOW: “When the Right Look Trumps the Right Stuff

“Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin received a media lashing last week when word trickled out that her makeup artist snagged $22,800 in the first half of October. Pundits warned that such royal treatment might undermine her “down home” persona, but the makeover may have been a savvy move: New research adds more weight to the idea that voters value attractiveness more than competence in the faces of female politicians.” Read more . . .

From Scientific American: “The Science of Gossip: Why We Can’t Stop Ourselves

“When you cut away its many layers, our fixation on popular culture reflects an intense interest in the doings of other people; this preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times to make our ancestors socially successful. Thus, it appears that we are hardwired to be fascinated by gossip.” Read more . . .

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Ideology, Life, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Civil Settlements – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 26, 2008

Blurry Clockface - by Neil101, FlickrJohn Bronsteen, Christopher Buccafusco, and Jonathan Masur recently posted their fascinating article, “Hedonic Adaptation and the Settlement of Civil Lawsuits” (forthcoming in the Columbia Law Review) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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This paper examines the burgeoning psychological literature on happiness and hedonic adaptation (a person’s capacity to preserve or recapture her level of happiness by adjusting to changed circumstances), bringing this literature to bear on a previously overlooked aspect of the civil litigation process: the probability of pre-trial settlement. The glacial pace of civil litigation is commonly thought of as a regrettable source of costs to the relevant parties. Even relatively straightforward personal injury lawsuits can last for as long as two years, delaying the arrival of necessary redress to the tort victim and forcing the litigants to expend ever greater quantities of resources. Yet these procedural delays are likely to have salutary effects on the litigation system as well. When an individual first suffers a serious injury, she will likely predict that the injury will greatly diminish her future happiness. However, during the time that it takes her case to reach trial the aggrieved plaintiff is likely to adapt hedonically to her injury – even if that injury is permanent – and within two years will report levels of happiness very close to her pre-injury state. Consequently, the amount of money that the plaintiff believes will fairly compensate her for her injury – will make her whole, in the typical parlance of tort damages – will decrease appreciably. The sum that the plaintiff is willing to accept in settlement will decline accordingly, and the chances of settlement increase – perhaps dramatically. The high costs of prolonged civil litigation are thus likely to be offset substantially by the resources saved as adaptive litigants succeed in settling before trial.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Deep Capture – Part X

Posted by Jon Hanson on May 6, 2008

This is the tenth part of a series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.” The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition.

Previous posts in this series (which are summarized at the bottom of this entry), reviewed a sample of the evidence indicating that pro-commercial dispositionism has been widely accepted as the presumptive starting place for policy analysis. The previous post in this series described the strategy of relying on credible third-party messengers. This post suggests how that strategy may have influenced legal theory and law.

(Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the remarkable illustrations in this series.)

* * *

There is a vast range of interconnected evidence (too vast to do justice to in this subsection) of pro-commercial interests investing to deeply capture the many “credible third parties” that might influence the many “targeted audiences” (including all of us) to accept pro-commercial worldviews. In this subsection we will focus on a small sample of that evidence. Although the sample is small, it will hit close to home for much of our audience and will, we hope, strike a more direct and personal chord than the Galileo discussion may have.

Consider the world of legal scholarship. Large business interests have attempted to locate, create, and sponsor the production and dissemination of pro-commercial legal scholarship by legal scholars who have served as credible, if often unwitting, spokespeople for business ends. More specifically, consider some of the evidence regarding the goals and influence of the John M. Olin Foundation.

According to the Olin Foundation’s Web site,

the general purpose of the John M. Olin Foundation is to provide support for projects that reflect or are intended to strengthen the economic, political and cultural institutions upon which the American heritage of constitutional government and private enterprise is based. The Foundation also seeks to . . . encourag[e] the thoughtful study of the connections between economic and political freedoms, and the cultural heritage that sustains them.

To advance that goal the Olin Foundation has, among other things, awarded tens of millions of dollars to prominent law schools for the promotion of law and economics scholarship. Over the past twenty years, Olin money has established law and economics programs, or “centers,” at several prominent law schools: the University of Chicago, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, Duke, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, George Mason, and the University of Virginia. In 1999, a year in which the Foundation paid out almost $20 million in grants to organizations around the country, \Harvard Law School’s John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics, and Business was in the middle of a four-year, $6 million grant, Yale Law School’s John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics was in the middle of a three-year, $1.9 million grant, and the University of Chicago Law School’s John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics was in the middle of a six-year, $2.5 million grant. In May 2003, Harvard received another grant from the Olin Foundation, this time for $10 million, “the largest foundation grant in the law school’s 186-year history.”

Olin money, as we will describe in more detail in subsequent work, has a significant influence not only in encouraging certain types of scholarship, but also in increasing the credibility of that scholarship. It establishes “centers” dedicated to law and economics theory, provides funding for journals through which law and economics scholarship can be stamped with the legitimacy of “peer review” by other legal economists, finances a series of workshops to encourage efficiency-oriented scholars to share and test their views at elite law schools, and gives scholarships and fellowships to top law students who participate in law and economics seminars and produce law and economics scholarship. In short, Olin money has helped to create and advance a critical mass of legal scholars, who begin with the strong dispositionist axioms of neoclassical economics, who write largely for one another and policymakers, and who view themselves (and are viewed by many others) as the only genuinely social scientific members of the legal academy.

The success of the Olin Foundation’s funding of law and economics seems fairly dramatic. Professor Steven Shavell, the director of Harvard Law School’s Olin Program, recently provided one measure of that achievement. Professor Shavell surveyed the academic appointments at the “top 10″ law schools over the last decade. Of forty-three total placements, he found that, twenty-three were Harvard Law School graduates, and ten of those had been Olin fellows. As Professor Shavell told the Boston Globe, “[i]n the long run, we’re going to have a heck of an impact on who’s teaching at the leading law schools, and what the students are learning.”

We would go further. The Olin Foundation and the law and economics scholarship that it has subsidized have already had “a heck of an impact.” Indeed, the scholarly project that the Olin money has sponsored is the same project that is widely understood today to be the dominant paradigm for policy analysis. Professor Shavell has emphasized that the economic analysis of law “has changed the nature of legal scholarship, influenced legal practice, and already proven its tremendous value in policymaking and business.” Furthermore, the Olin Foundation’s Board of Trustees recently declared that their contributions have “supported a wide range of scholars and writers who significantly changed the content and direction of American academic and political discussion.”

Of course, the fact that the Olin Foundation poured millions of dollars into promoting law and economics does not necessarily imply that those investments played a significant causal role in the stunning success of the now-dominant paradigm. It may be, as most of its proponents presume, that law and economics was destined for greatness solely on the merits, and that Olin money simply facilitated an inevitable process that was already underway.

* * *

There are several reasons to suspect, however, that the Olin Foundation’s support, combined with numerous other situational influences, has played a pivotal causal role in the success of the law and economics movement. First, the success of law and economics appears to map closely with the precise ambitions and strategies of the key individuals behind the Olin Foundation: John Olin, the founder of the organization, and William Simon, its longtime president. After leaving his position as Treasury Secretary in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Simon wrote two best-selling books that outlined his conservative and pro-commercial beliefs and his agenda for implementing them. Simon was a prominent, early exponent of the dispositionist, neoliberal worldview that seeks to promote private enterprise and to minimize the role of government–a worldview shared by John Olin. They also shared a belief that American universities at the time produced ideas and graduates that were dangerously antithetical to those ends. To Simon, this problem was tantamount to a war of liberty versus totalitarianism–a war with three fronts:

1. Funds generated by business . . . must rush by multimillions to the aid of liberty, in the many places where it is beleaguered.
. . . .
. . . [Foundations established by such funds must] serve explicitly as intellectual refuges for the non-egalitarian scholars and writers in our society who today work largely alone in the face of overwhelming indifference or hostility. They must be given grants, grants, and more grants in exchange for books, books, and more books.
2. Business must cease the mindless subsidizing of colleges and universities whose departments of economics, government, politics and history are hostile to capitalism and whose faculties will not hire scholars whose views are otherwise.
. . . .
. . . America’s major universities are today churning out young collectivists by legions, and it is irrational for businessmen to support them.
. . . .
3. Finally, business money must flow . . . to media which are either pro-freedom or, if not necessarily ‘pro-business,’ at least professionally capable of a fair and accurate treatment of procapitalist ideas, values and arguments. The judgment of this fairness is to be made by businessmen alone–it is their money that they are investing.

These are the three fronts on which to act aggressively if we are to create a sophisticated counter-force to the rising despotism. One of my own first actions on leaving the post of Secretary of the Treasury was toWilliam Simon Quotation accept the job of president of the John N. [sic] Olin Foundation, whose purpose is to support those individuals and institutions who are working to strengthen the free enterprise system.

Thus, Simon, with the support of the Olin Foundation, was trying to alter the playing field on which academic debate takes place–and trying to do so situationally. Furthermore, he understood that the dispositionism of law and economics is pro-business and that many alternative views, otherwise successful in the marketplace of ideas, are not. Simon presented American individualism, much as ad agencies presented the Marlboro Man, as the American tradition and the source of America’s greatness. However, like the Marlboro Man’s creators, Simon seemed to appreciate that such individualism, to be embraced as deeply as Philip Morris, Simon, and others desired, had to be heavily promoted, and reinforced if it is to be widely accepted. And he further understood that the situation can and should be manipulated by, among other things, choosing particular academics, programs, and scholarly camps to give “grants, grants, and more grants in exchange for books, books, and more books.”

In light of Simon’s (and thus the Olin Foundation’s) pro-business mission, there is good reason to believe that the Olin Foundation’s sizeable law and economics investment was money well spent. The point is strengthened when one considers that the Foundation engaged in a kind of “stage financing” of these programs: grants were intended to last for only a few years, at which point the Foundation would consider whether to renew its contribution to a particular program. The fact that the Foundation continued to renew many grants provides strong evidence that it believed that its investments were generating worthwhile returns in terms of encouraging pro-commercial worldviews (and discouraging alternatives) among students, academics, and policymakers.

* * *

Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized. Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other. Part VI laid out the “deep capture hypothesis” a bit more and began loosely testing it by examining the role that it may have played in the “deregulatory” movement. Part VII provided some illustrative examples of how atypical “regulators,” from courts to hard-hitting news networks, reflect and contribute to deep capture. Part VIII contrasted different cultures for evidence of commercial interests in promoting dispositionism. Part IX described the strategy of employing third-party messengers.

Posted in Deep Capture, Legal Theory | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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