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The Brain In Context

By Sarah W. Denton

Sarah W. Denton is a research assistant with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center. Denton is also a research assistant with the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. Her research primarily focuses on ethical and governance implications for emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, neurotechnology, gene-editing technology, and pharmaceuticals. 

Tim Brown, University of Washington PhD student and research assistant with the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering’s (CSNE) Neuroethics Thrust, introduced the session titled, “The Brain in Context,” at the International Neuroethics Society’s 2017 Annual Meeting moderated by Husseini Manji, Janssen Global Therapeutic Neuroscience Area Head. This session provided a multidisciplinary view of the challenges we face today in understanding the context of lived experiences and how our brains impact our environments. Getting at the heart of the context in which our brains develop and grow may help us to reduce stigma by increasing our understanding of how our environments impact our brains in a myriad of ways.

Socioeconomic Status and the Brain

Martha Farah, Director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania, kicked off the panel discussion by speaking about her recent research on the relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and the brain. The factors affecting the brain not only arise from our physical bodies, but also include our social environments [1]. Specifically, Farah has focused her attention on socioeconomic status and how it affects everything, from life expectancy to education to income – all of which are inherently connected to the context and the environments in which our brains develop.

The way the brain develops is a causal pathway to a variety of outcomes. For instance, there is a surprisingly strong relationship between cognitive ability, as measured by IQ and school achievement, and SES [2]. Farah’s lab performed three studies that aimed to characterize SES disparities in terms of cognitive neuroscience’s model of mind, rather than through intelligence and standardized test scores [3,4,5]. Cognitive neuroscientists employ the ‘information processing’ view of the mind, which is a fundamental construct of cognitive psychology that “refers to the rule-governed transformation of [both unconscious and conscious] metal representations” (e.g., explicit perception, implicit learning, implicit memory [6]. This view of the mind appeals to computational methods in both cognitive psychology and neuroscience to understand the molecular mechanisms implicated in information processing [7].

Developed from a slide shown during Farah’s panel 

discussion titled, “Socioeconomic Status and the Brain,” 

at the 2017 International Neuroethics Society Annual Meeting 

on November 10, 2017 at the American Academy for the 

Advancement of Science (AAAS) building in Washington, D.C.

Farah’s findings suggest that the most pronounced socioeconomic-derived disparities were both executive function associated with the prefrontal cortex and declarative memory associated with the hippocampus. We know that the brain is usually discussed in a descriptive and mechanistic way, but this conception may be unhelpful. Although there are currently no unique implications, research moving towards a more illustrative and actionable understanding of the brain in context is adding to the weight of evidence that our environment, including SES, has profound affects on our brains. Thus, neuroethics and neuroscience policy is relevant precisely because it increases the weight of evidence. The end goal of Farah’s research program is to understand poverty using insight from neuroscience in order to help “break the cycle” and guide future policy decisions. 

Prenatal Programming of Human Fetal Brain Development 

The second panelist, Moriah Thomason, Director of the Perinatal Neural Connectivity Unit of the Perinatology Research Branch with the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University School of Medicine, built upon this discussion and defined the first context of our brain – the womb. Her research centers around prenatal programming of human fetal brain development and has found that alterations in brain development in utero have significant cognitive effects.

Earlier this year, Thomason published a study in Scientific Reports that suggested differences in how certain brain regions communicate with each other in fetuses that were later born prematurely when compared to fetuses that were carried to term [8].

Thomason’s research team used fMRI to determine which brain regions were involved in synchronized activity between brain regions, which suggests that these regions are well connected and share information [9]. The brain in utero is essentially in a state of becoming and sets the stage for our future abilities even before we take our first breaths outside of the womb. For instance, a mother experiencing high levels of stress seems to imprint this stress on the fetal brain [10]. This fetal programming affects the functional connectivity in the fetal brain prior to birth. Her “Prenatal Imaging of Neural Connectivity (PINC)” study has found that the prenatal stress score (depression, perceived stress, satisfaction with life, and anxiety) is correlated to fetal brain connectivity in several notable brain areas, including three subregions of the cerebellum.

Image courtesy of Pexels.

One implication of Thomason’s research is that we no longer need to limit the brain to a postnatal context- neural connectivity begins prior to birth. This suggests that prenatal brain development is intimately tied to the mother’s environment and psycho-physio state, which may have a wide range of implications that have yet to be explored. This is just the beginning for Thomason and prenatal neuro-connectivity research, and I am eager to see neuroethicists explore the implications of the brain in the context of the womb.

Do Brains Matter Using Screens?

The final panelist, Hervé Chneiweiss, Research Director at École des Neurosciences Paris Île-de-France, moved us from the brain in the context of the womb to the brain in the context of our increasing use of technology – particularly screens like those found in our phones, televisions, and tablets. The social context is perhaps the most important while we learn; yet, our increasing reliance on screens as an educational tool may hinder our ability to learn how to interact with others in our physical environments [See 11,12,13].

In this context, neuro-education has evolved from two-dimensional to five-dimensional; but now we are moving back to 2D screens. Moreover, there is a correlation between excessive screen time and the development of psychiatric disorders, lack of sleep, and impaired cognition [14]. Beyond the potential cognitive effects of excessive screen-time, Chneiweiss is also concerned about the marketing of attention, i.e., the subjection to excessive screen time in the workplace and nonmaleficence in advertising the educational benefits of brain training apps.

On the latter, Chneiweiss is particularly concerned about the vague educational benefit claims made by many apps directed at vulnerable populations like children and seniors [15]. The democratization of screens has created two new kinds of pathology: nomophobia, phobia of being without a phone; and fomo, the fear of missing out, fear of being disconnected of the social network. While these characterizations are a bit tongue-in-cheek, they highlight real problems that can significantly affect our cognitive abilities.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

As a general rule of thumb, owning a console or tablet presents more risks than benefits, such as insomnia and social-skill development, for children under the age of six [16]. But, by the time they reach their teenage years, certain action-oriented games can indeed improve cognitive abilities such as visual attention and decision-making [17]. To address this discrepancy, we must educate children and their parents on how their brains work and how screens affect their brain functions.


All three panelists presented neuroscience research in the social context. Martha Farah’s presentation showed how social and other environmental factors, like income, can have significant effects on brain development. Moriah Thomason’s presentation of her research went even farther – connecting stress levels of mothers to prenatal brain development. Finally, Hervé Chneiweiss spoke on how the use of screens, like those found in television sets and iPhones, can not only affect child and adolescent brain development but can also affect how they interact in the social environments around them.
The primary takeaway from this session is that our brains do not develop in a neuropsychiatric vacuum- our social and cultural environments can have significant implications for neuroscience. In the Q&A after the presentations, I found it of particular interest that each panelist agreed that the social context is the most important context when it comes to understanding the brain and conducting neuroscientific research.
Now, as we move forward, we should approach neuroscience research and its findings in the context of our social environments if we are to create a more holistic understanding of the brain.


[1] M. Farah. 2012. “Neuroethics: The Ethical, Legal, and Societal Impact of Neuroscience,” The Annual Review of Psychology: University of Pennsylvania, 63: pp. 571-91 [ ]; B. Avants, et al. 2012. “Early childhood environment predicts frontal and temporal cortical thickness in the young adult brain,” presentation at The Society for Neuroscience 2012 Meeting, abstract can be found here: []; M. Mariani. 2017. “The neuroscience of inequality: does poverty show up in children’s brains?” The Guardian, (13 July) [].

[2] Martha Farah, Socioeconomic Status and Brain. University of Pennsylvania, Center for Neuroscience & Society. [].

[3] K. Nobel, M.F. Norman, and M. Farah. 2005. “Neurocognitive correlates of socioeconomic status in kindergarten children,” Developmental Science, 8(1): pp. 74-87. [].

[4] M. Farah, et. al. 2006. “Childhood poverty: Specific associations with neurocognitive development,” Brain Research, 1110: pp. 166-174. [ ].

[5] K. Noble, B. McCandliss, and M. Farah. 2007. “Socioeconomic gradients predict individual differences in neurocognitive abilities,” Developmental Science, 10(4): pp. 464-480. []

[6] D. David, M. Miclea, and A. Opre 2004. “The Information-Processing Approach to the Human Mind: Basics and Beyond,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60(4): pp. 355,357. [].

[7] “The Philosophy of Neuroscience” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Chapter 6: A Result of the Co-Evolutionary Research Ideology – Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience. 2010. [].

[8] M. Thomason et. al. 2017. “Weak functional connectivity in the human fetal brain prior to preterm birth,” Scientific Reports, 7(39286). []. Of course, these findings are preliminary, but Thomason is enthusiastic and plans to continue this research with larger sample sizes.

[9] G. Miller. 2017. “Pioneering study images in fetal brains,” Science Magazine, (9 January). [].

[10] M. Thomason et. al. 2017. “Weak functional connectivity in the human fetal brain prior to preterm birth,” Scientific Reports, 7(39286). [].

[11] J.E. Brody. 2015. “Screen Addiction is Taking a Toll on Children,” The New York Times (6 July) []

[12] USC Center for Work and Family Life, “Sleep Deprivation in the Age of Electronics,” []

[13] G.S. Goldfield, et al., “Screen time is associated with depressive symptomatology among obese adolescents: a HEARTY study,” European Journal of Pediatrics, v. 175(7): pp. 909-919 (July) [].

[14] P. Reany. 2011. “Not Getting Enough Sleep? Turn off the Technology,” Reuters (7 March) [].

[15] R. Robbins. 2016. “U.S. Cracking Down on ‘Brain Training’ Games,” Scientific American, STAT (6 September) []; E. Yong. 2016. “The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games,” The Atlantic (3 October) [].

[16] K. Subrahmanyam, et al. 2000. “The Impact of Home Computer Use on Children’s Activities and Development,” The Future of Children, (Fall/Winter): Princeton University [].

[17] I. Granic, et al. 2014. “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” American Psychologist, (January) []; D. Bavelier, et al. 2011. “Brains on video games,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12: pp. 763-768 (18 November) []. 

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Denton, S. (2018). The Brain In Context. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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