The Neuroethics of Poverty

By Martha J. Farah

Socioeconomic Status and the Brain

Figure 1. Neuroscience of SES publications.
(Image courtesy of Martha Farah.)
One of the strongest relations in epidemiology is between a person’s socioeconomic status (SES) and their risk of mood and anxiety disorders. In the field of psychometrics, a similarly robust relation is found between SES and cognitive ability as measured by the IQ and other standardized tests. SES predicts a variety of life outcomes, and many of them – like emotional well-being and intelligence – are related to brain function. For this reason, neuroscientists have turned their attention to SES, and to the most materially deprived end of the SES spectrum, poverty.

The neuroscience of SES is a young field – even younger than neuroethics! – but it has grown rapidly, as shown in Figure 1. Here, I will focus not on the neuroscience of SES but on the neuroethics of SES. In particular, I will focus on the neuroethics of poverty, which was the topic of a fascinating meeting I just attended at the Medical College of Wisconsin, organized by the neuroethicist Fabrice Jotterand. The meeting was called “This is Your Brain on Poverty” and brought together people from a mix of disciplines that grapple with poverty: clinicians, scientists, bioethicists, educators, social workers and clergy.

The Neuroscience of Poverty and Neuroethics

One question that arose at the meeting: How should we approach the problem of poverty, and more specifically, can we use neuroscience to approach the problem of poverty without adding further disadvantage to the very people we hope to understand and help? Put bluntly, is the neuroscience of poverty unethical?

Neuroscience itself merely describes facts and tests hypotheses, so on the face of things it is ethically neutral. For example, Noble et al. (2015) found that family income was associated with children’s cortical surface area, with wealthier children having greater surface area, particularly in the areas shown in yellow below. However, findings such as these bring to mind images, associations and connotations that may color our attitudes toward the poor, and from there, may even influence our actions toward them. Examples of this follow.

Family income and cortical surface area.
(Image courtesy of Martha Farah.)

Unethical Consequences of the Neuroscience of Poverty (?)

Some have expressed concern that neuroscience encourages us to focus on a biologically malfunctioning system rather than a morally wrong social arrangement. One such critic likens the neuroscience of poverty to saying slavery is wrong because it affects the brain (see Farah, 2018, for a review of this and other critiques). Certainly, the neuroscience approach calls attention to biological factors, and this could have the unfortunate effect of diverting attention from structural social and economic factors.

Others have pointed to the risk of pathologizing the poor by emphasizing differences in brain function. Focusing on brain differences invites us to think of the poor as sick or damaged, which can itself cause harm through devaluation and stigma.

Yet another concern with the growing role of neuroscience in discussions of poverty policy comes from the frequently noted existence of critical periods. Although this strengthens the argument for societal investment in early life, it can encourage the abandonment of older children, teens and adults who need help.

These are all ethical concerns, in that they involve the misplacing of blame (away from social and economic inequalities), the objectification and devaluation of people (as inferior brains), and the excusing of inaction (because, why bother if you’ve missed the critical period).

But is the neuroscience of poverty intrinsically problematic from an ethical point of view? I don’t think so. The issues just raised are not logical implications of a neuroscientific view of poverty. It is more accurate to call them understandable misinterpretations. We can see where they come from – the discourse of neuroscience makes certain ideas about poverty particularly salient. But that is the result of the images, associations and connotations that neuroscience calls up in our minds, rather than the literal scientific message. Saying that the neuroscience of poverty pathologizes the poor or denies the importance of structural factors is a little like complaining that the psychologist administering the Rorschach test is showing you dirty pictures.

Speakers from the June 13, 2019 meeting “This is Your Brain
on Poverty,”  from left to right: David Nelson, Ann Helms,
Jennifer Koop, Fatimah Loren Muhammad, Martha Farah,
and Fabrice Jotterand. (Image courtesy of Martha Farah.)
Nevertheless, if certain harmful misunderstandings are predictable, then neuroscientists studying poverty do have an ethical obligation – the obligation to anticipate these misunderstandings and head them off. For example, given that neuroscience naturally focuses our attention on processes within the brain rather than structural causes in society, we should proactively remind our audiences that biological and social explanations are not mutually exclusive. If we are discussing the higher risk of depression for low SES individuals and presenting an explanation related to amygdala-prefrontal coupling, we should add that this neural phenomenon itself may be due to current and lifetime stressors rooted in social and economic disadvantage. For me, this was one of the most useful insights gained at this stimulating conference.

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Martha J. Farah is a cognitive neuroscientist with long-standing interests in neuroethics and the neuroscience of socioeconomic status. She is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania where she directs the Center for Neuroscience & Society and the Graduate Certificate Program in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN).



References
  1. Farah, M. J. (2018). Socioeconomic status and the brain: prospects for neuroscience-informed policy. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, July, 428-438.
  2. Noble, K.G., Houston, S.M., Brito, N.H., Bartsch, H., Kan, E., Kuperman, J.M., … Sowell, E.R. (2015). Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents. Nature Neuroscience, 18(5), 773–8.

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Farah, M. J. (2019). The Neuroethics of Poverty. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2019/07/the-neuroethics-of-poverty_2.html

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