Saturday, April 01, 2006

Neurogenesis, Stress and Poverty

There’s an interesting, though lengthy SEED article about neurogenesis, which highlights the work of Elizabeth Gould of Princeton’s Department of Psychology.
The social implications of this research are staggering. If boring environments, stressful noises, and the primate’s particular slot in the dominance hierarchy all shape the architecture of the brain—and Gould’s team has shown that they do—then the playing field isn’t level. Poverty and stress aren’t just an idea: they are an anatomy. Some brains never even have a chance.
”Some brains never even have a chance” for what, exactly? Obviously, the implication is that since poverty and stress hinder the brain’s regenerative ability, ‘we’, as a society (i.e., the government) ought to eradicate poverty once and for all. You know, just like LBJ’s Great Society was supposed to do over forty years ago. How is that working out?
Gould’s research inevitably conjures up comparisons to societal problems. And while Gould, like all rigorous bench scientists, prefers to focus on the strictly scientific aspects of her data—she is wary of having it twisted for political purposes—she is also acutely aware of the potential implications of her research.
Okay, so leave politics out of it then. But that’s easier said than done…apparently.
“Poverty is stress,” she says, with more than a little passion in her voice. “One thing that always strikes me is that when you ask Americans why the poor are poor, they always say it’s because they don’t work hard enough, or don’t want to do better. They act like poverty is a character issue.”
So what then…we’re to believe that character (or a lack thereof) has nothing to do with poverty? I tend to agree with Will Wilkinson, who wrote:
Why think character issues have nothing to do with, say, neurogenesis? Aristotle says virtue is a hexis, a habit, a settled disposition of the soul to feel and act. Losing neurons, or failing to repair neurons, that are implicated in hedonic tone and motivation surely has something to with habit, virtue, ...character. No?
Will’s post is worth a read. In fact, he—correctly, I think—links poverty to culture, as did I in an essay I wrote in September 2005. Here’s the money quote:
The crux of the problem, in my view, is none other than the refusal to think independently. In other words: the lemmings that follow their peers over the edge get exactly what they’ve earned. Face it, if one chooses to incorporate the mindset and customs of the culture of defeatism, the welfare mentality and a racial inferiority complex (ala Rev. Jackson, Rev. Sharpton, Rev. Whomever), then that one bears the full responsibility for the inexorable consequences. The same applies to the trailer-dwelling, mullet-having laborer that accepts the perceived immutability of his impoverishment, in addition to being certain that the wealthy folks in the gated community across town are to blame.