Scanners Live in Vain

There is a new paper out in Nature Neuroscience,  mainly by Kimberly Noble, on socioeconomic variables and and brain structure:  Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents. They found that cortex area went up with income, although more slowly at high incomes.  Judging from their comments to the press, the authors think that being poor shrinks your brain.

Of course, since intelligence is highly heritable, and since people in higher social classes, or with high income, have higher average IQs (although not nearly as high as I would like), you would expect their kids to be, on average, smarter than kids from low-income groups (and have larger brains, since brain size is correlated with IQ) for genetic reasons.  But I guess the authors of this paper have never heard of  any of that – which raises the question, did they scan the brains of the authors?  Because that would have been interesting.  You can actually do microscopic MRI.

Even better, in talking to Nature, another researcher, Martha Farah,  mentions unpublished work that shows that the brain-size correlation with SES  is already there ( in African-American kids) by age one month!

Of course, finding that the pattern already exists at the age of one month seriously weakens any idea that being poor shrinks the brain: most of the environmental effects you would consider haven’t even come into play in the first four weeks, when babies drink milk, sleep, and poop. Genetics affecting both parents and their children would make more sense, if the pattern shows up so early (and I’ll bet money that, if real,  it shows up well before one month);  but Martha Farah, and the reporter from Nature, Sara Reardon, ARE TOO FUCKING DUMB to realize this.

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60 Responses to Scanners Live in Vain

  1. kingofmen says:

    most of the environmental effects you would consider haven’t even come into play in the first four weeks, when babies drink milk, sleep, and poop.

    The mother’s diet (also smoking, drinking, drugs) during the pregnancy seems like an obvious one?

  2. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    I take it that this is what you are remonstrating against:

    • gcochran9 says:

      This is mere chiding.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        Heh …

        Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, calls the research “unbelievably cool”. Having such a large sample of children allowed the researchers to show the great impact of poverty on developing brains, she says, although the study cannot measure how individual brains change over time.

        The findings are in line with unpublished research conducted by Farah and her colleagues that scanned the brains of 44 African American girls, each approximately a month old, from various socioeconomic groups in Philadelphia.

        Ohhh, I see. It’s so unfuckingbelievably cool that they haven’t published it for us to review. Truly Nature has become like fishwrap.

    • misdreavus says:

      As predicted, just about every comment there is stupid and/or horribly misinformed. We have reached the point where PhDs in the human sciences actually have less intelligent insights to offer than the average Tennessee redneck.

      “This is probably trivial, but have the correlations been corrected for parental brain size/surface area? After all, there might be a genetically heritable reason for parents being in the 25k or 150k income bracket.”

      Keep thinking, and you might teach yourself an important lesson or two.

      • Harold says:

        “We have reached the point where PhDs in the human sciences actually have less intelligent insights to offer than the average Tennessee redneck.”

        Is it because of their higher IQs that they are able to have less insight? Or if the rednecks just worked harder at it, could they too have as little insight?

        • Sean says:

          That is very profound. To unpack it a little more, brainpower is there to help us get on in life. Only a Tennessee redneck would think the game being played is called “the truth”.

      • Yudi says:

        The most hilarious thing is that several of the commenters thought the paper went too far in its assertions about brain differences and were offended! A couple believed that talking about differences in brain size amounted to phrenology. You can’t make this stuff up.

    • John Hostetler says:

      “Martha Farah calls the research ‘unbelievably cool’.”

      This is the predictable result of the masculine nature of science being subverted by affirmative action. Feel-good.

  3. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    A scanner darkly?

    Certainly the references to drug culture seem appropriate.

  4. Due Credit says:

    “Neither study explains the cause of the cognitive differences. Although the authors of both studies admit that genetic factors could be involved, they suspect that environmental exposures such as stress and nutrition are more important and begin even before the babies are born.”

    They do admit the possibility of genetic factors.

    “The stress of growing up poor can hurt a child’s brain development starting before birth, research suggests — and even very small differences in income can have major effects on the brain…The brains of children from the lowest income bracket — less than US$25,000 — had up to 6% less surface area than did those of children from families making more than US$150,000, the researchers found.”

    Effects up to 6% are “major effects.”

    “They imaged the brains of 1,099 children, adolescents and young adults in several US cities. Because people with lower incomes in the United States are more likely to be from minority ethnic groups, the team mapped each child’s genetic ancestry and then adjusted the calculations so that the effects of poverty would not be skewed by the small differences in brain structure between ethnic groups.”

    Ethnic differences are “small differences.”

    But in studies of overall brain volume group differences have been of similar size to class differences. Were things different here?

  5. j says:

    “It’s important for the message not to be that if you’re poor your brain is smaller and will be smaller forever,” Sowell says.

    The article referenced is not an objective scientific research paper but a propaganda item with a “message”. I would say “Shame on Nature” if I didnt know that this is the price it has to pay to be able to survive in America 2015.

  6. Hesse Kassel says:

    You don’t honestly think it is stupidity, right?

  7. carol2000 says:

    I’d like to know whether Epstein-Barr virus infection had something to do with it, because the class differences are quite large at age 6-8, see Fig. 2.
    Also CMV infection, because prenatal infection is a known cause of serious brain damage and sensorineural deafness.

    • Yes, of course. that is the magic missing piece in every one of these studies about whether intelligence differences are possibly genetic. Some other factor which affects a few percent of the population is responsible for skewing all the data.

      • carol2000 says:

        Congratulations on grasping my point; that’s more than most people are capable of. However, there may be damage other than just the gross damage that has been investigated so far. As it is, CMV causes more cases of congenital disease than the 29 conditions currently screened in most American states. And for EBV, there is this:
        “About 25% of the sample was exposed to EBV at age 4. EBV exposure was associated with subsequent risk of definite PE in adolescence; OR 5.37 (95% CI 1.71-16.87), which remained significant after confounding adjustment. EBV-exposed individuals compared with unexposed performed worse on all IQ measures; mean difference in full-scale IQ 4.15 (95% CI 0.44-7.87); however, this was explained by socio-demographic differences. The EBV-PE association was not explained by IQ.”
        However, if “socio-demographic differences” per se are not causal, while the EBV infection is, then it makes no sense to “adjust” it away. The truth is those people are all programmed like robots to adjust without even thinking, just because that’s how it’s always been done. And that “few percent” of the population affected amounts to 75% of the lowest quartile versus 40% of the highest quartile at ages 6-8 in the US.

  8. Sam says:

    I agree with you that the effect is mainly genetic, especially for a group that is in a developed country. This kind of correlation can be more interesting non-genetically for people in poor countries where access to food or the ability to avoid infections is not universally adequate. For instance, the correlation between child health (e.g. height-for-age and weight-for-age) and SES is significant even after controlling for genetic effect. In papers that have looked at looked at this, the sample includes children (0 to 5 years) that have the same parents (this allows one to look at variations of health outcomes for children who share the same parent but were born in different seasons), and they found that child health is highly dependent on the season of birth. That’s because the seasons in poor agrarian-based economies are correlated with food availability, which is low at the start of the rainy (planting season) and high at the end of the rainy season (harvesting season). The effect on child’s health can be attributed to one or all three of the following: mother’s nutrition at conception, mother’s nutrition during pregnancy or child nutrition and mother nutrition during lactation. There is an additional difficulty in that disease burden varies across seasons (e.g. malaria), which can confound the effect of nutrition. Decomposing which effect predominates can sometimes be a bit tough given the kind of data available in many developing countries.
    Interestingly, the dependence of child health on season of birth goes away for high SES households even in poor African countries.

  9. setstamov says:

    Being poor shrinks your brain? Really? Then why poverty did not shrink his brain?
    “Ting Shi said his first two years in the United States were wretched. He slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown, while his parents lived on East 89th Street, near a laundromat where they endured 12-hour shifts. He saw them only on Sundays” Ting is one of the students, accepted to Stuyvesant High School, after taking a “.. grueling 95-question test for admission to New York City’s elite public high schools” – and competing for the few spots with 15 000 candidates. ( And it is not only about the Asian culture. Half of the children attending Ontario state’s public gifted education programme (admission process includes 6 different aptitude exams targeting top 0.5% of school population) are first generation immigrants from Eastern Europe and South Asia. (do the authors of the article really, really believe that *any* of these children came from middle-class-high-income family? This is ridiculous, arrogant and stupid statement. Whoever said that could shred his diploma for cognitive neuroscience to pieces. And eat the pieces. Nature’s article is a verdict for the scientific establishment. At least in the western world. Just carry on the same way. Will end up in pre-modern times for no time. The entire world, not only the West – hit the western science and the entire world science would be dead – soon after.

  10. GrumpyOldMan says:

    Off Topic: I believe autism has been linked to larger head size and diagnoses have skyrocketed in recent decades. Could it be that autism is a byproduct of too much of a good thing, i.e., very well-nourished mothers tend to have more autistic children? Perhaps evolution has optimized fetal brain development to conditions which mothers are either chronically malnourished or at least less well-nourished than contemporary mothers in industrialized societies. It’s not completely obvious that, beyond a certain point, increases in mothers’ health are positively correlated with increases in fetal health and development, since very high maternal health may have been rare until very recent times.

    • Count Doofus says:

      Autism has been related to deficiency in folic acid, which has been compensated for with folate food enrichment in recent decades. But i am skeptical about over-nourishment as cause of autism.

  11. setstamov says:

    O, I think I got it. Some people need to be reach in order not to have their brains shrunk. I mean, this is the lucky part. The unlucky still have their brains shrunk despite all efforts and parental social status. The author of Nature’s article is from the unlucky part. Curious how many are from the third part left – those, whose minds don’t shrink no matter what. There must be few. Or not.

  12. I posted about this paper yesterday

    More data is available, and I will try to have a look at it and post further.

    • Beyond Anon says:

      Is there any data on the frequency of delivery complications (need for episiotomies or tearing in the perineal tissue) among SS Africans or Australian Aborigines …

      That might be useful data …

  13. MawBTS says:

    oh shitsnacks, the e-word got deployed

    And Hanson suggests that epigenetics — modifications to DNA caused by environmental factors such as stress — could also be playing an important role, and can be passed down through generations.

  14. Pingback: Shrunken Brains | Neoreactive

  15. Pingback: Distinctions that Make a Difference | al fin next level

  16. Flinders Petrie says:

    The “unbelievably cool” comment is direct evidence that the author of the paper is, in fact, unbelievably stupid.

    Or blinded by ideology…but really, it’s the same thing.

    Unless she is saying that it is unbelievably cool that she found a reason for persistent poverty: inheriting a smaller brain. But that would be a strange reaction to such a sad reality. Which would again mean she’s stupid.

  17. ziel says:

    What about the Dutch famine? I believe there are studies supposedly finding negative health effects among the cohort gestating during the famine (and their children too!), but have any studies claimed to have found cognitive defects?

  18. Matt says:

    Cochran: Of course, since intelligence is highly heritable, and since people in higher social classes, or with high income, have higher average IQs (although not nearly as high as I would like), you would expect their kids to be, on average, smarter than kids from low-income groups (and have larger brains, since brain size is correlated with IQ) for genetic reasons.

    Maybe people such as the authors here could probably look at the parent-child IQ correlation, and the brain size-IQ correlation and combine the two to get an estimate of how much brain size difference they would expect to be present based on the heritability of IQ, where brain size differences are all mediated via IQ.

    If it isn’t much of their difference, then heritable brain size differences through heritability of IQ won’t explain their effect. If it explains all of it, it explains all of it. And everything in between.

    That might leave room for other effects still – for one, people from higher SES might tend to be healthier (ill physical or mental health probably damages SES) and healthier people whose bodies develop better may have larger brains even when their brains don’t work better at IQ problems. (Healthier in either a Darwinian or “What people actually think of as healthy” sense).

  19. Greying Wanderer says:

    There’s a third kind; people who can’t handle being mean.

    If people like that think the only two options are mean truth and “nice” lies then they’ll go with nice lies.

    (not genuinely nice as the lies prevent doing what could be done to alleviate the problems but “nicer” on the surface)

    The ideologues won’t change and the people who go along with the dominant ideology whatever it is won’t change but it ought to be possible to get the third kind partially onside by focusing on the fixable side of inherited intelligence.

    If it’s all about genes which directly influence intelligence and a person either has them or they don’t with no way of fixing it (apart from eugenics) then the kind of people I’m talking about will prefer nice lies to that mean truth.

    However there are probably other genes which indirectly influence intelligence i.e. they influence brain development but not necessarily direct operation once developed. The effects of these may be fixable in some way.

    Just as an example of what I mean by fixable, it’s known that iodine deficiency effects brain development so what if a population who lived somewhere iodine deficient in the past developed a gene that utilised iodine more efficiently to compensate? In such a case the solution might be mothers from population A need x amount of iodine in pregnancy and the first three years while mothers from population B need x+20% amount.

    In a nutshell, if the logical conclusion to the argument is eugenics then they’ll ignore the argument so thinking up and throwing non-eugenic sticks for them to chase would work better.


    And the obvious place to look for sticks – assuming genetics is the main driver – will be those places where there seem to be anomalies between the genetics and real world outcomes e.g. Argentina.

  20. Patrick Boyle says:

    You don’t seem to get it. You’re sitting on a fortune and you ignore it.

    Ask yourself this question, “Why has Hollywood made no movie about me?” They made a movie about this guy Jaime Escalante for teaching a calculus class to high school students. I taught a calculus class to MBA grad students once. I don’t remember much about it. I was a TA and I was called in at the last minute to teach calculus and some matrix algebra to the MBA students. I never did it again. But it was almost certainly a more advanced class than whatever Escalante taught.

    Hollywood wants a movie that proves that genetics doesn’t matter.

    You could write a book ‘proving’ that genetics is bunk. All that matters is niceness. The movie producers would beat a path to your door. George Clooney could play you.

  21. I am annoyed at both you and Thomson. I had emailed this link home to put on my own blog, but you got in first. If only the State of NH would let me blog while on-duty.

  22. People are too fucking dumb to realize damn near everything and I’m tired of it. Instead of bitching about the dummies I plan on fucking with them. April Fools day lasts all year long with me. I have found a way make it look like normal plants in my backyard are actually bioluminescent. The dollar store sells these cheap solar lights that are surprisingly long lasting. It is very easy and dirt cheap to convert these little night lights into green fiber optic lights that make your garden glow at night looking for all the world that you have in your back yard genetically engineered bioluminescent plants. Yea, a close look in the day time will discover the two inch solar panels and the fiber optic cables, actually fish line butted right up to the end of the LED light and then heat shrink wrapped to keep in it in place, but before then everyone thinks you are the proud owner of a glowing back yard garden that looks like it came right out of the movie Avatar. If anyone want to know the particulars on how to do this just ask. Happy April Fools Day.

  23. Dale says:

    You could guess that the authors et al. are too stupid to consider the possibility of genetic causes. Or you could guess that they’re smart enough to realize that unleashing a firestorm is likely to make it hard to score the next research grant.

    • gcochran9 says:

      It’s people like this that make up the ‘firestorm’, not a bunch of farmers or hot-dog vendors.

      • ziel says:

        I guess to some extent it’s a selection process – it’s a lot easier to get to a high-visibility position by being a true believer. Still, i don’t think it’s too hard to fake – I’m pretty sure that after decades of receiving corporate diversity propaganda and reading NYT Editorials, I could run a Diversity Gulag with the best of them.

        • Toddy Cat says:

          “I could run a Diversity Gulag with the best of them”

          No, Ziel, they’d spot you in no time. It’s not enough for a leftist to be stupid at work; you have to be stupid 24/7/365. Sooner rather than later, you’d slip up and say something sensible, and you would be buster…

      • Dale says:

        I’m sorry to say that I don’t understand what you’re saying here.

        If you’re a research scientist, you live off of research grants, and the competition is fierce. You don’t want to become famous for coming to non-PC conclusions because that will cause the funding agencies to blacklist you, possibly under Congressional pressure. The sort of people who do that are selected against.

        Now if you stumbled into some sort of non-PC truth, you could cleverly camouflage it by continuing to amass and publish all the data needed to establish it, but carefully providing a suitably PC press release denying the hypothesis that you are establishing.

  24. Yes, Nature is very uneducated. Apparently half of the people who read Nature never learnt what a complex number is:

  25. Sid says:

    I wouldn’t reject environmental explanations so soon. This new study supports a couple of others that came out recently:

    “These unique data suggest that low SES environments influence the rate of human infant brain development. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers from lower income families began their lives with similar gray matter brain volumes but had lower total gray matter compared with those from middle and high-income households by toddlerhood. Differences in brain volumes between children from low and high SES households are not accounted for by infant birth weight, infant’s early health, or differences in head size at birth. As infants aged—and presumably had increased exposure to the effects of their environments—the differences in brain volume between poor children and those with greater resources widened. Smaller volumes in this brain tissue were related to greater behavior problems in the pre-school years. . . . These results extend a consistent literature in rodents, non-human primates, and humans suggesting that early environments marked by stress or deprivation negatively influence brain development [65]–[69].”

    Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth

    “We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.”

    Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function

    • ziel says:

      The first study is fully consistent with a genetic explanation. The second is just silly – if true, it would imply that poor people make good decisions when confronted with a windfall – do we see evidence of that out in the real world?

    • JayMan says:


      You missed April Fools by a few hours there, buddy.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “I wouldn’t reject environmental explanations so soon.”


      “It was found that national IQs are correlated at 0.757 with real GDP per capita 1998.”

      This leaves a lot of room for environment but there’s “environment” as in not enough x in the food or too much y in the water and “environment” as short hand for poverty as a magic box.

      If the environment=poverty people weren’t just making political points by stealth they’d be more interested in the x and y in food and water part of environment.

    • Sid says:


      Your opinions refute neither study.


      The only fool here is you, pal.

      @Greying Wanderer

      Like this:

      “In this study, we hypothesize that the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability is determined in part by variation in the intensity of infectious diseases. From an energetics standpoint, a developing human will have difficulty building a brain and fighting off infectious diseases at the same time, as both are very metabolically costly tasks. Using three measures of average national intelligence quotient (IQ), we found that the zero-order correlation between average IQ and parasite stress ranges from r = −0.76 to r = −0.82 (p less than 0.0001). These correlations are robust worldwide, as well as within five of six world regions. Infectious disease remains the most powerful predictor of average national IQ when temperature, distance from Africa, gross domestic product per capita and several measures of education are controlled for. These findings suggest that the Flynn effect may be caused in part by the decrease in the intensity of infectious diseases as nations develop.”

      Parasite prevalence and the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability

  26. IC says:

    My childhood life was in poverty due to political reason in communist China. Somehow my own head is still the largest among people who growing up in Western-well nourished contries.

    My mother must have fed me with special diet nobody else know;)

  27. IC says:

    According to their findings, for high income people, very little difference in brain surface area can reslut in huge income difference. For poor people, it is opposite.

    This migh be result of a threshold intelligence is need in civilized societies to get basic income. Once above this threshold, any slight advantage of intelligence can be translated in huge economical difference due to compound effect of economical returned. This might be that just a few point different, people can end up in schools with different prestages, in different proffesional categories, ect. In business world, a small difference can translate into winning or losing the game. If you play strategic game, you know how it is like. The effect is compounded on itself and result in exponential different in income due to such small advantage in this highly competitive world.

  28. Anthropometric Guy says:

    On of the largest studies of fetal head circumference cited in the “Handbook of Anthropometry” (Edited by Victor R. Preedy) concluded that pre-natal head growth in Nigerian infants is genetic but post natal head growth is environmental. It’s hard to argue their findings when one sees the average height of Nigerian men is 5’4″. There’s no information given on social status of infants, but I would imagine that poorer Nigerians have more kids. Take a look it’s very detailed. Quote from conclusion:
    “We also conclude that modern studies, which implicate HC in intelligence, suggest that the well known decline in HC in the African vis-à-vis other racial groups occurs after birth and not before it. We are equally aware that early maturation does not necessarily indicate better intelligence. However, we suggest that post natal decline in velocity of HC in the African is probably due to low nutrition, and that with improved diet, this seeming difference will be corrected.”

    • ziel says:

      It seems plausible to me that the ~1 s.d. difference in measured iq between Africans and African-Americans is largely due to malnutrition and disease burdens. But in western economies, environmental explanations are rather labyrinthine and implausible.

  29. Julian says:

    Thankfully Nature has a comments section which some are making use of to point out the alternative explanation.

  30. Anon says:

    So I guess winning the lottery must then increase your brain size.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I’m guessing not. Although it might, if the alternative is death by starvation.

      • Anonymous says:

        Well I’ll be, there’s an actual study of that. I thought that link was satirical when I first started reading it.

        “In our intergenerational analyses we similarly find that the effects of parental wealth on infant health, drug consumption, scholastic performance and cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be bounded to a tight interval around zero.”

        It can’t be stated much more clearly than that.

        I wonder if Dr. Noble would think this finding is unbelievably cool? Or would it be bad to think that?

  31. Pingback: Not-So-Random Thoughts (XIV) | POLITICS & PROSPERITY

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