Our Blessed Lady of the Cerebellum

marymri_t6001Thank God for Vaughn at Mind Hacks. Or should I say, Graça à Nossa Senhora (that’s Thanks to Our Lady for those of you scratching your heads)… He brings to our attention this brain image which shows Our Lady of the Cerebellum in his posting Immaculate perception.

According to the original story, we learn that in 2002, Pamela Latrimore underwent an MRI that, in the eyes of some, imaged the Virgin Mary where most of us have a cerebellum (although, that would explain if she was having some motor control problems…). The original story, Do you see the Virgin Mary in this brain scan?, appeared in the TCPalm, Florida’s Treasure Coast and Palm Beaches’ news leader.

As the story reports:

Latrimore, a 42-year-old wife and mother without insurance, hadn’t ever really looked at the results of a 2002 MRI scan of her brain. So she didn’t know what her Catholic sister-in-law was talking about a few weeks ago when she said, “Oh my gosh, Pam, you have Mother Mary in your head.”

This story would be unmitigated fun, a chance to spin out all sorts of jokes about which parts of the brain ‘light up’ when we see a pattern of the Holy Mary in our brain images, except for the fact that, if you read a bit further in the TCPalm, you learn why Ms. Latrimore was getting brain scans in the first place, and perhaps why she and her relatives are searching for signs of any divine intervention.

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Women on tests update: response to stress

A while ago, I posted an overly-long discussion of recent research on the ‘math gap’ between boys and girls on standardized testing (Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1). That posting discussed several studies published in Science that have shown the gap in average math scores between boys and girls is not set in stone. In one paper, an increase in the test pool brought on by the No Child Left Behind program, with mandatory universal tests instead of exams only for those wishing to go to college, caused the gap in average scores to disappear; in the other paper, a decrease in the ‘math gap’ was found to correlate with other measures of greater gender equality in European states.

As I pointed out in the previous post, however, many commentators suggest that it is not the gap in average test scores that really matters; rather, these critics argue that the different variance in boys’ and girls’ scores explains the disproportionate number of boys who produce exceptional scores (as well as exceptionally bad scores), and thus the marked gap of men and women in PhD math programs, in prestigious prizes for physics and related subjects, and in related fields like engineering. In the earlier post, I argued that even if this greater variance showed up reliably across all testing populations, what exactly was being illuminated was still not clear; that is, many other explanations–other than that men had better ‘math modules’ in their brains, or greater ‘innate’ mathematics ability, or something like that–could explain even very stable differences in math performance. At the time I suggested a number of other possibilities, such as sex differences in stress response during testing, as other possible explanations for even a universal ‘math gap’ (which still had to contend with studies like the two in Science which severely undermined the assertion of universality).

As if on cue, I stumbled upon a video and accompanying article in Science Daily on differences in stress responses among men and women: Neuroscientists Find That Men And Women Respond Differently To Stress (but don’t click on that link — keep reading!). Stress is a good candidate to explain a test-taking gap because the observable physiological processes offer abundant evidence that men and women don’t respond to stress in exactly the same way (although there are underlying commonalities). For example, stress causes different diseases in men and women, and some long-term psychological disorders that demonstrate sex-linked disparities seem to emerge from stress.

Unlike the ‘black box’ explanation that boys and simply better at math or evidence greater variability in innate ability, with no observable neural correlate or plausible explanatory mechanism, in variation in stress response we have a clear candidate for male-female difference that plausibly affects their performance and even physiology (for example, in different stress-related diseases).
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Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1

In a January 2005 speech, Harvard President Lawrence Summers provoked the proverbial firestorm by suggesting that women lacked the ‘intrinsic aptitude’ of women for math, science and engineering (story in the Boston Globe on the incident). Summers was merely stating out loud what many people believe: that inherent differences between men and women cause significant inequalities in aptitude for math (and presumably also for art history, Coptic studies, or cultural anthropology, but they usually get a lot less attention…).

A recent report in Science by Janet S. Hyde and colleagues, ‘Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance,’ used a mass of standardized testing data generated under the No Child Left Behind program to compare male and female performance and found that the scores were more similar than different. The gap in average performance on math tests has shrunk significantly since the 1970s, disappearing in most states and grades for which the research team could get good data. According to Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the co-authors of the study: ‘Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance. But people are surprised by these findings, which suggests to me that the stereotypes are still there.’

From the way that this report has been discussed, it seems clear that the data has not settled this question in many people’s minds. Tamar Lewin of The New York Time covered the story in (‘Math Scores Show No Gap for Girls, Study Finds‘) provoking comments on a wide range of websites, including some who insisted that the team led by Hyde missed entirely the point being made by Summers or that Lewin had misread the study (some accusing her of feminist bias). In contrast, Keith J. Winstein of The Wall Street Journal focused not on the average scores, but on the results at the top end of the bell curve, writing, Boys’ Math Scores Hit Highs and Lows, which highlights the discussion of variance in boys’ scores.

Although I briefly want to go over the study and the way its being interpreted, I’m more interested in the shift in test scores over time because I think that the movements in these numbers, including gaps that disappear over time (or don’t), point to a basic problem in the tests themselves. Well, not a problem in the tests—they’re very sophisticated instruments for assessing certain kinds of performance on selected tasks—but rather with the common assumption about what these tests actually reveal and the nature of ‘math ability.’ For me, this larger point is more important for neuroanthropology because it applies to far more than just the ‘math gap.’

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Call for Change in HIV Prevention in Africa

Daniel Halperin, a medical anthropologist at Harvard, is leading the call for a change in HIV prevention. As a recent BBC article reports, “Substantial investment in condom promotion, HIV testing and vaccine research has had limited success in Africa, [Halperin and others] argue in Science. Instead male circumcision and reducing multiple sexual partners should become the ‘cornerstone’ of prevention.”

Their overall argument actually takes aim at one of the biggest sacred cows in current anthropology—the role of inequality. In Reassessing HIV Prevention, Potts, Halperin et al. write, “Such devastating epidemics [of HIV/AIDS] have frequently been attributed to poverty, limited health services, illiteracy, war, and gender inequity. Although these grave problems demand an effective response in their own right, they do not appear to be the immediate causes of generalized epidemics.”

The immediate causes, and thus the immediate foci for prevention, are more concrete:

Where multiple sexual partnerships, especially concurrent ones, are uncommon, and particularly where male circumcision (MC) is common, HIV infection has remained concentrated in high-risk populations (7). Niger, a Muslim country where sexual behavior is relatively constrained and MC is universal, has an adult HIV prevalence of 0.7% (1), despite being the lowest ranking country in the Human Development Index. Botswana, the second wealthiest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, has high levels of multiple concurrent partnerships among both sexes and lack of MC (8), with an HIV prevalence of 25%.

I would also add mother-to-child prevention, given work I help guide in Lesotho. That research, in affiliation with the Touching Tiny Lives project which helps children, shows the importance of access to preventive drugs during pregnancy and breastfeeding, while also addressing the stigmas and sociocultural limitations that often keep women from having access to these drugs.

And for those larger causes? Halperin wrote a powerful editorial back in January, Putting A Plague in Perspective. There he wrote:

Many other public health needs in developing countries are being ignored. The fact is, spending $50 billion or more on foreign health assistance does make sense, but only if it is not limited to H.I.V.-AIDS programs… Many millions of African children and adults die of malnutrition, pneumonia, motor vehicle accidents and other largely preventable, if not headline-grabbing, conditions. One-fifth of all global deaths from diarrhea occur in just three African countries — Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria — that have relatively low H.I.V. prevalence. Yet this condition, which is not particularly difficult to cure or prevent, gets scant attention from the donors that invest nearly $1 billion annually on AIDS programs in those countries.

Comfort Food and Social Stress

Comfort Food, for Monkeys is John Tierney’s article today, reporting on recent research by Mark Wilson and colleagues at Yerkes Primate Center about rhesus monkeys, sweet tooths, social stress and inequality. Familiar themes, all of them.

Normally, low-status monkeys eat roughly the same amount of bland monkey chow as dominant individuals. But add sweet banana-flavored pellets to the mix, and suddenly the equation changed: “While the dominant monkeys dabbled in the sweet, fatty pellets just during the daytime, the subordinate monkeys kept scarfing them down after dark.”

Tierney goes on to outline reasons why this scarfing vs. dabbling dynamic might emerge in socially complex species like rhesus monkeys. As Wilson et al. note in their paper, “this ethologically relevant model may help understand how psychosocial stress changes food preferences and consumption leading to obesity.”

Tierney describes research by Dallman et al., who have proposed that people can directly impact stress hormones through eating, largely by mediating anxiety: “[P]eople eat comfort food in an attempt to reduce the activity in the chronic stress-response network with its attendant anxiety.” So individuals with greater stress reactivity and negative mood tend to eat more in their stressed vs. control experimental paradigm.

As Tierney notes with a quip about a “stressed-out wage slave who has polished off a quart of Häagen-Dazs at midnight while contemplating the day’s humiliations,” inequality can bring on stress reactivity and negative mood (for more on that, see previous stress and inequality posts on Sapolsky and Blakey). In turn, inequality feeds into the obesity epidemic through both social and cultural dynamics.

But Tierney also knows that seeking food, not simply reactive eating, is key to overall weight gain. Continue reading

Wednesday Round Up #10


Anthropology.Net, The Social Brain Hypothesis: Are Our Brains Hardwired to Deal with Hierarchies?
Subconsciously processing dominance hierachies

Marc Dingman, Neuroimaging and the Social Ladder
Social hierarchy: can we see it in an fMRI?

Ira Flatow, Mapping the Social Brain
How the brain responds to social status

Constance Holder, A Head for Social Hierarchy
More on the work by Caroline Zink: superior players change our own thinking

Free Will

Cognitive Daily, Changing Belief in Free Will Can Cause Students to Cheat
No free will, more likely to cheat—if responsibility doesn’t count, who cares?

Foolish Green Ideas, Tight Fit
Very funny take on the “no free will” research

Brain Mechanisms

Chris/Mixing Memory, Emotion, Reason and Moral Judgment
Brain damage, moral scenarios, and general vs. personal rationality

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Inequality and Drug Use

By Mary Kate McNamara, Emily Schirack, Dana Sherry & Amy Vereecke

Close your eyes. Imagine a crack addict. What do you picture? A wealthy man in an Armani suit and tie? Or a poor man clothed in baggy jeans; violent, dark and dangerous? Is she seated behind a mahogany desk on the 22nd floor of an office building in Manhattan or is she standing on a graffiti-covered street corner in East Harlem?

We know that a person’s drug of choice is influenced by his or her social status, from the high-powered lawyer with a penchant for powder cocaine to the pill-popping rock star to the alcoholic factory worker to the unemployed crack head. Here we will show something more important about a person’s relationship with drugs: an individual’s decision to use drugs is embedded in an unequal social structure, a social structure that produces unequal outcomes for drug users contingent on their social status.

By being poor, under-educated and of a low-status ethnic group, a person is at a greater risk for not only social marginalization, but becoming a victim of addiction (Baer, Singer & Susser 2003: 131). As David Courtwright argues in Forces of Habit, social inequality is promoted by the elite to maintain control over a minority group of laborers. By suppressing the lower classes in a cycle of substance abuse and addiction, the wealthy are able to increase their own power and profits. At the expense of people they deem inferior—simply because these people lack the material means to rise from their position—the elite sustain their authority. “Next to profits and taxes, the utility of drugs in acquiring, pacifying and fleecing workers proved to be their greatest advantage to the elites…” (Courtwright 2001:135)

In analyzing society’s abuse of drugs, Courtwright comments that “a pattern of drug use can become so entrenched in a culture that it is impossible to permanently suppress and delegitimate it” (Courtwright 2001: 199). This entrenchment is facilitated by a cycle of poverty, inequality and addiction.

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