In their article, “Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research,” Daniel A. Hackman, Martha J. Farah, and Michael J. Meaney explore how low socioeconomic status (SES) affects underlying cognitive and affective neural systems. They identify and focus on two sets of factors that determine the relationship between SES and cognitive development: (1) the environmental factors or ‘mechanisms’ that demonstrably mediate SES and brain development; and (2) those neurocognitive systems that are most strongly affected by low SES, including language processing and executive function. They argue that “these findings provide a unique opportunity for understanding how environmental factors can lead to individual differences in brain development, and for improving the programmes and policies that are designed to alleviate SES-related disparities in mental health and academic achievement” .
|Neuroscience can tell us how SES may affect her brain.|
Can it move us to do something about it?
This is, as the authors themselves point out, important work, because understanding which systems are affected can help educators and policy-makers develop programs to target them more directly and successfully. For example, the work of D’Anguilli et. al. demonstrates that low-SES children pay more attention to unattended stimuli, and are thereby more susceptible to becoming distracted and having a harder time focusing on a given task.  A corresponding, corrective strategy would consist in introducing games, lessons and computer-based strategies which explicitly target executive functions – and indeed, just such a set of measures is being used by the Tools of the Mind curriculum, which as of this year is being implemented in 18,000 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms, in Head Start programs, public schools, and childcare centers across the nation.
|Fig. 1: The yellow 'brain development' box represents those neurocognitive systems that are most affected by low SES, and could include 'language processing' and 'executive function'|
What do you think?
I’m not ‘worried’ so much as left wondering about one issue in Hackman et. al.’s review that I would now like to explore, and that I would welcome further discussion about.
My concern relates to the broader relationship between scientific knowledge and our individual and collective moral motivation to do something about an ongoing injustice. Allow me illustrate what I mean using two diagrams adapted from the Hackman et. al. article. The first represents the state of our knowledge regarding the relationship between SES and development, without any concrete neuroscientific understanding of the neurocognitive systems that mediate between them:
|Fig. 2: We know that SES affects developmental outcomes,|
even if we don't understand the neurocognitive systems that mediate the relationship
|Fig. 3: Neuroscience is beginning to elucidate which neurocognitive systems are |
most strongly affected by SES, and thereby influence children's developmental outcomes
Again, as mentioned, I fully recognize and appreciate the potential of neuroscientists and their collaborators to “design of more specific and powerful interventions to prevent and remediate the effects of low childhood SES.”  A second, equally essential neuroscientific question to explore is whether certain brain propensities increase the likelihood of individuals' living in low-SES circumstances. Could we say that certain brain propensities correspond to developmental diseases, or to a kind of physical handicap - one that traps people in poverty and decreases their likelihood of attaining a better quality of life? If so, would this oblige us to take action? These are fundamental questions that need to be explored further. For my part, I'm not sure I agree with the statement that neuroscience can “highlight the importance of policies that shape the broader environments to which families are exposed” with any more clarity or motivational force than our existing knowledge already does. 
I am a neurophile, but…
|One of these is not like the other. Or...?|
Unfortunately, our relationship to children in lower-SES environments is closer to the distant pregnant mothers in Singer's analogy than it is to the bleeding stranger right in front us. Few of us interact with low-SES children on a daily basis, and so many of us worry about how they get on in more abstract, theoretical terms. But if this is right, then more information, or even more scientific understanding, will not be enough to move us toward addressing their developmental issues. Rather, we will need to use other kinds of knowledge, such as our emerging understanding of biased moral motivation, to reflectively increase the probability of translating our moral principles into actions. That is, examples like Singer's bleeding stranger tell us something about how our moral motivation works, and we need to use this type of knowledge to try and make low-SES children seem more like the man with the leg wound in our moral imaginations. This would increase the likelihood of our doing something to improve low-SES children's circumstances. One way of achieving this would be to ensure that we interact with low-SES parents and their children on a more regular basis, e.g., by doing something as simple as taking public transportation. This would make us more likely to put our hard-won neuroscience research to use.
 Hackman, D. A., Farah, M.J., Meaney, M. J., 2010, 'Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research,' in Nature 11, Available at https://mail-attachment.googleusercontent.com/attachment/u/0/?ui=2&ik=bb31177d51&view=att&th=13ad223ce6979971&attid=0.4&disp=inline&safe=1&zw&saduie=AG9B_P9-g3MEKF3MHUpOaKNL2td1&sadet=1355272405884&sads=-iGOQ0R2Qyb4_aHrUapR1YuvG1g
 D’Angiulli A, Herdman A, Stapells D, Hertzman C. 2002, 'Children’s event-related potentials of auditory selective attention vary with their socioeconomic status.' Neuropsychology 22:293–300.
 Singer, P., 1972. 'Famine, affluence, and morality.' Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, 229–243.
 Greene, J. 2003. ''From neural 'is' to moral 'ought': what are the moral implications of neuroscientific moral psychology?' Nature. Available at: http://www.overcominghateportal.org/uploads/5/4/1/5/5415260/from_neural_is_to_moral_ought.pdf
Want to cite this post?
Haas, J. Uncovering the Neurocognitive Systems for 'Help This Child'. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2012/12/uncovering-neurocognitive-systems-for.html