The Frontal Cortex

A Neural Correlate for Social Class

Exciting news! I’m the new curator of the Scientific American expert blog seminar Mind Matters. (Thanks, David!) For those of you who are unfamiliar with the site, it features commentary by real scientists on recent scientific papers. This week’s blog is by Mauricio Delgado, a neuroscientist at Rutgers, discussing a paper that found a neural correlate for social class.

In recent years, neuroscientific investigations of social class have really expanded, for several reasons. First of all, scientists are increasingly able to detect the fine-grained anatomical differences caused by differences in social status. (The amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate, and neurogenesis pathways are all likely targets.) Most studies pinpoint the stress of poverty as the driving factor behind these anatomical changes. The second reason is that society in general is becoming more aware of growing social inequality. Here, for instance, is the beginning of Paul Krugman’s latest column:

“Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.” That was the opening of an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.

Comments

  1. #1 Rachael
    February 19, 2008

    Congratulations!!

    Here’s where my political anger boils to the surface. I find the concept of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” very frustrating to combat during conversations about poverty. Arguing with someone from a privileged background about class discrimination is maddening and usually met with the response of “Of course it’s possible, it’s America, anyone can get an education or make it big. Remember: [insert one in a million story here]”. Grrr.

    So, now there is (yet more) justification that the barriers to crossing class are real, and in fact much greater than previously assumed.

  2. #2 mehran
    February 19, 2008

    Congratulations Jonah!
    Just finished your book, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Wishing you the best.
    P.S. Interesting point about neural correlation between development and social class, although I must confess I have recently been avoiding Paul Krugman’s columns in the NY-Times since he is so rabidly anti-Obama. (sorry, I know I should probably not comment about politics on your blog)

  3. #3 Michael
    February 19, 2008

    Its an interesting topic, though, I think it is very complex subject to deal and would be easy to oversimplify. One confounding factor is that people who have a propensity for depression or anxiety may, on average, be more likely to be poor. Depression is often associated with impaired work functioning which could lead to poverty. However it probably is a vicious circle whereby if you are poor you have higher stress/depression levels that make you even poorer. I’ve personally known several people from wealthy backgrounds who have had mental illness and subsequently have done poorly financially.

    Also, I think you can be rich but still have high levels of stress. Some kids who are rich can may get picked on at school or be abused. So it might also be good to focus on reducing levels of stress in all kids, regardless of what their socioeconomic background was. Government measures for reducing child poverty could also go along way. Taking these steps could potentially pay big dividends in academic achievement.

  4. #4 amybuilds
    February 19, 2008

    I find this topic particularly interesting. My son spent the first year of his life in a Russian Orphanage where his basic needs (both physical and emotional) were not adequately met. He now lives in a middle class environment. Genetics gave him a very high IQ and I would suggest that his current environment is supportive and nuturing but we constantly battle that first year. I know there are many (including a highly regarded psychiatrist we saw early on) who would say that we are off base in this assumption. My gut instinct tells me that certain things were set in motion that first year of brain development that he’ll struggle with for the rest of his life. On a positive note, I’ve watched this kid make strides that astonish many who have known him. I’ll look forward to reading more on the subject. Thanks for the post.

  5. #5 Alessandra
    February 19, 2008

    You know, I can’t help but see your book in this: science is again just now able to show us what we already knew was true. I can SEE my grandmother’s wrinkled hand raised to smack a white lab coat up-side the head, “I know wassa wrong wit da poor ones, stupido..now splaina da rich ones and I give you a Nobel.”

  6. #6 Alessandra
    February 19, 2008

    You know, I can’t help but see your book in this: science is again just now able to show us what we already knew was true. I can SEE my grandmother’s wrinkled hand raised to smack a white lab coat up-side the head, “I know wassa wrong wit da poor ones, stupido..now splaina da rich ones and I give you a Nobel.”

  7. #7 Elektrische Zahnbuerste
    November 25, 2011

    forty people that work with all the services Oasis provides, and he is a very busy man, he

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