A Philosopher's Blog

Poverty & the Brain

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 14, 2017

A key part of the American mythology is the belief that a person can rise to the pinnacle of success from the depths of poverty. While this does occur, most understand that poverty presents a considerable obstacle to success. In fact, the legendary tales that tell of such success typically embrace an interesting double vision of poverty: they praise the hero for overcoming the incredible obstacle of poverty while also asserting that anyone with gumption should be able to achieve this success.

Outside of myths and legends, it is a fact that poverty is difficult to overcome. There are, of course, the obvious challenges of poverty. For example, a person born into poverty will not have the same educational opportunities as the affluent. As another example, they will have less access to technology such as computers and high-speed internet. As a third example, there are the impacts of diet and health care—both necessities are expensive and the poor typically have less access to good food and good care. There is also recent research by scientists such as Kimberly G. Noble  that suggests a link between poverty and brain development.

While the most direct way to study the impact of poverty and the brain is by imaging the brain, this (as researchers have noted) is expensive. However, the research that has been conducted shows a correlation between family income and the size of some surface areas of the cortex. For children whose families make under $50,000 per year, there is a strong correlation between income and the surface area of the cortex. While greater income is correlated with greater cortical surface area, the apparent impact is reduced once the income exceeds $50,000 a year. This suggests, but does not prove, that poverty has a negative impact on the development of the cortex and this impact is proportional to the degree of poverty.

Because of the cost of direct research on the brain, most research focuses on cognitive tests that indirectly test for the functionality of the brain. As might be expected, children from lower income families perform worse than their more affluent peers in their language skills, memory, self-control and focus. This performance disparity cuts across ethnicity and gender.

As would be expected, there are individuals who do not conform to the generally correlation. That is, there are children from disadvantaged families who perform well on the tests and children from advantaged families who do poorly. As such, knowing the economic class of a child does not tell one what their individual capabilities are. However, there is a clear correlation when the matter is considered in terms of populations rather than single individuals. This is important to consider when assessing the impact of anecdotes of successful rising from poverty—as with all appeals to anecdotal evidence, they do not outweigh the bulk of statistical evidence.

To use an analogy, boys tend to be stronger than girls but knowing that Sally is a girl does not entail that one knows that Sally is weaker than Bob the boy. Sally might be much stronger than Bob. An anecdote about how Sally is stronger than Bob also does not show that girls are stronger than boys; it just shows that Sally is unusual in her strength. Likewise, if Sally lives in poverty but does exceptionally well on the cognitive tests and has a normal cortex, this does not prove that poverty does not have a negative impact on the brain. This leads to the obvious question about whether poverty is a causal factor in brain development.

Those with even passing familiarity with causal reasoning know that correlation is not causation. To infer that because there is a correlation between poverty and cognitive abilities that there must be a causal connection would be to fall victim to the most basic of causal fallacies. One possibility is that the correlation is a mere coincidence and there is no causal connection. Another possibility is that there is a third factor that is causing both—that is, poverty and the cognitive abilities are both effects.

There is also the possibility that the causal connection has been reversed. That is, it is not poverty that increases the chances a person has less cortical surface (and corresponding capabilities). Rather, it is having less cortical surface area that is a causal factor in poverty.

This view does have considerable appeal. As noted above, children in poverty tend to do worse on tests for language skills, memory, self-control and focus. These are the capabilities that are needed for success and it seems reasonable to think that people who were less capable would thus be less successful. To use an analogy, there is a clear correlation between running speed and success in track races. It is not, of course, losing races that makes a person slow. It is being slow that causes a person to lose races.

Despite the appeal of this interpretation of the data, to rush to the conclusion that it is the cognitive abilities that cause poverty would be as much a fallacy as rushing to the conclusion that poverty influences brain development. Both views do seem plausible and it is certainly possible that there is causation going in both directions. The challenge, then, is to sort the causation. The obvious approach is to conduct the controlled experiment suggested by Noble—providing the experimental group of low income families with an income supplement and providing the control group with a relatively tiny supplement. If the experiment is conducted properly and the sample size is large enough, the results would be statistically significant and provide an answer to the question of the causal connection.

Intuitively, it makes sense that an adequate family income would generally have a positive impact on the development of children. After all, this income would allow access to adequate food, care and education. It would also tend to have a positive impact on family conditions, such as emotional stress. This is not to say that throwing money at poverty is the cure; but reducing poverty is certainly a worthwhile goal regardless of its connection to brain development. If it does turn out that poverty does have a negative impact on development, then those who are concerned with the well-being of children should be motivated to combat poverty. It would also serve to undercut another American myth, that the poor are stuck in poverty simply because they are lazy. If poverty has the damaging impact on the brain it seems to have, then this would help explain why poverty is such a trap.


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Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on September 18, 2015

There is a popular belief that Mohawks have no fear of heights. Though part Mohawk, I apparently did not get the part that is fearless about heights: I am terrified of heights. But, I believe a person should not be ruled by fear and so never let that fear control me. This explains how I ended up falling off the roof and tearing my quadriceps tendon, thus showing that too much philosophy can bust you up. For those not familiar with this important body part, it is that tendon that allows one to do such things as stand and walk. But, I digress—time to leave the subject of falling and get on with the topic at hand.

This fear of heights applies to flying—as soon as I buy my tickets, I start experiencing a sense of dread. In the past, my rather masochistic coping method was to get a window seat and force myself to stare downwards at the ever more distant earth. I got this approach from Aristotle, the stoics and running: one becomes what one does, attitude matters a great deal, and the way to learn to endure pain is to face that pain. While I still dislike heights, the fear is now “at distance”—it is, to use a metaphor, as if I am looking at it from a great height. So, while too much philosophy can bust one up, it can also provide a useful theoretical foundation for weird coping mechanisms. And some say that philosophy is useless.

These days my main dislike of flying is that the process, at least for most of us, is unpleasant. In the United States, we are forced into bit parts in the security theater. Shoes must be removed, forcing us to shuffle along in socks (or barefoot) which feels just a bit humiliating.  It is as if we are bad children who might track dirt into the pristine airport. Next is the body scan—which is apparently useless because I am always patted down anyway after the scan. But, perhaps people really cannot resist running their hands over my awesome bod. Or a look like a criminal. With an awesome bod.

Then there is the ritual of getting dressed again—shoes on, belt on, watch back on, wallet back in the pocket and so on. Sort of a wham, bam, thank you Sam sort of situation. Some folks do get to bypass some of the process—those willing to shuck out some extra cash and time getting checked by the state. I call this process theater for the obvious reason that it is theater—the security can be easily bypassed and seems based on the principle that discomforting and humiliating people will make them feel safer. That said, I have friends and relatives in the TSA and think well of them—they are good people. The system, which they do not control, is another matter.

While I usually fly Delta, I suspect most airlines have a similar boarding process. Like an oppressive state, Delta has a very rigid class system that governs one’s privileges and one’s abuse. While folks with special needs get to go first, after that there are various distinct groups—these seemed to be named on the basis of precious substances like diamonds, gold and quatloos. I assume this is because to get in those groups one must have an adequate supply of diamonds or gold.

Back in the day, boarding early was not much of a privilege: one just got to sit in the plane longer. However, when airlines started charging people for luggage, getting on early became rather important. When everyone is trying to bring on as much as possible as carryon luggage, getting on the plane early can make the difference between jamming that giant rolling “carry on” into the overhead or having it subject to the tender mercies of baggage handling. Interestingly, airlines have started offering to check large carryon luggage for free when flights are crowded—their solution to the problem created by charging for checked luggage is to offer free checked luggage. I suspect that this creates some sort of paradox and that Christopher Nolan will include it in his next movie. There also seems to be a prestige associated with boarding early—folks who can afford the Royal Secret Diamond Elite Magic Flyer level can presumably afford to pay for checked luggage (though they often seem well-laden with carryon luggage as well).

First class, as the name implies, also enjoys better treatment: they have larger seats, get to board early, and generally have better snacks and drinks. They also seem to get special treatment: while the boarding of my last flight was underway, the stewardess had to delay the progress of the little people (coach class) to bring beverages to two folks in first class. We waited there, holding our carryon luggage, until she brought them their drinks and returned. I waited for her—she was just doing her job. I was not very happy with the first class folks—it is a bit classless to hold up boarding because one cannot wait a few minutes for a drink.

On the plus side, the time spent waiting for the better folks to receive their drinks gave me time to apply some pseudo-Marxism to the oppressive class system of the airlines. Since I lack Marx’s writing chops, the best slogan I could come up with was “flyers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your cramped seats and comically limited overhead space!” I am certainly looking forward to the classless utopia of the future in which each person is seated according to her size and pays in accord with how much crap she brings on the plane. Plus booze for everyone.

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Obama and the Bitter Working Class

Posted in Politics, Race, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on April 12, 2008

Yet another private remark by a politician has been brought to the attention of the public by the media. This time, it is Barack Obama. In a private conversation, Obama was discussing working class voters who are apparently resisting his attempts to get their support.

In regards to these folks, he sad that they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” When these words became public, he stated the obvious: they were ill chosen. Naturally, Hillary Clinton took advantage of the situation to accuse Obama of being “elitist and out of touch.”

This does show an obvious problem faced by all politicians-there are no private conversations. Anything a politician says, private or not, will most likely end up in the news at some point. To modify the old philosophical problem: if a politician says something controversial in the woods and there is no one to hear her (or him), will it create a scandal? The answer is: that is a trick question-someone is always around to hear him (or her).

Turning now to Obama’s remark, he was unwise to say such a thing. While he was directing his remarks towards a certain group of people, his remark will be seen by some (or even many) as expressing a negative view of gun ownership and religion in general. From a political standpoint, people who like guns and religious people are two politically powerful groups (although religious people do, obviously enough, do not form a monolithic political group). Saying something that will be seen as offensive is not a very effective political move. Further, Obama (like all the candidates) has been trying to cast himself as religious. Such a remark, though logically consistent with being a person of faith, certainly is not calculated to appeal to religious voters.

His remark is almost certainly not going to help him win over the “bitter working class voters.” Rather, it will probably make them more bitter.

Hillary Clinton’s remark does seem to have some plausibility. Taking the view that working class people are clinging to guns, God and (presumably) racism does seem like an elitist view. After all, it seems to assume that the working class is not bitter and hard to win over because of legitimate concerns held by the individuals. Of course, for Hillary to hit Obama with the charge of being an elitist who is out of touch is somewhat ironic, given her own situation. Most “high end” politicians tend to be out of touch elites. After all, their lifestyles, concerns and such are quite different from those of most “normal” people. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that multimillionaire senators are “in touch” with the majority of Americans in a meaningful way.

One final and obvious question is this: what effect will this remark have on Obama’s chances?

It will have a negative impact, at least initially. But, Obama has shown that he is quite adept at damage control. He handled the Wright situation quite effectively and suffered no lasting harm. In fact, his speech on race seems to have helped him in many ways. In contrast, Hillary’s tall tales about coming under sniper fire and her attempts at damage control actually hurt her. I suspect that Obama will be able to use his skills of persuasion to mitigate any damage this remark might cause. To be a bit cynical, some of his supporters probably share his views in this matter.