The Causes of Poverty (59): Stress

Stress is often a consequence of poverty, but it can also make poverty worse. Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee have noted in Poor Economics that

[t]here is a strong association between poverty and the level of cortisol produced by the body, an indicator of stress. Conversely, cortisol levels go down when households receive help. The children of the beneficiaries of PROGRESA, the Mexican cash transfer program [later renamed Oportunidades], have, for example, been found to have significantly lower levels of cortisol than comparable children whose mothers did not benefit from the program. (source)

Cortisol is a hormone, and high levels of it can cause brain dysfunctions which in turn make it difficult for affected individuals to escape their economic predicament.

The prefrontal cortex, for example, which is vital for suppressing impulsive responses, is rendered less effective by high cortisol levels, making us more likely to take hasty, ill-considered decisions. “When experimental subjects are artificially put under stressful conditions,” Duflo and Banerjee note, “they are less likely to make the economically rational decision when faced with choosing among different alternatives.” (source)

This poverty cycle or poverty trap can only be broken when external interventions reduce stress levels. For example, poor people can be given easier access to credit or insurance, which will reduce their fear of the future. They can be given a basic income. Etc. Perhaps cortisol-reducing medication is also an option.

More here on the way in which brain dysfunctions can cause poverty. And more here on the link between poverty, self-control and willpower. More posts in this blog series are here.

Capital Punishment (43): Some Facts About Decapitation

It used to be a common practice, but today only a handful of countries still execute criminals by way of beheading (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and perhaps one or two other countries).

Assuming that decapitation occurs in a “civilized” way and that it doesn’t take a number of blows or cuts to the neck in order to sever the head from the body – which, in practice, is not always a correct assumption: does the brain remain conscious for a few seconds after a clean and quick decapitation? There are many historical reports of decapitated heads showing facial movements or even the attempt to speak right after decapitation. It’s not clear what to make of this, since facial movements can just as well be spasms.

However, experiments with rats have shown brain activity after decapitation. Sure, there’s no way to be sure that this is true for the human brain as well – since “further scientific observation of human decapitation is unlikely”, in the words of Alan Bellows. Still, the rat experiments are suggestive:

[R]esearchers connected an EEG machine to the brains of rats, decapitated them and recorded the electrical activity in the brain after the event. [They] found that for about four seconds after being separated from the body, the rats’ brains continued to generate electrical activity between the 13 to 100-Hertz frequency band, which is associated with consciousness and cognition, defined as “a mental process that includes thinking”. (source)

The circulatory system delivers oxygen to the brain so that it can carry out its functions. When suddenly deprived of oxygen or blood after a clean and quick decapitation – or after several severe blows to the neck with a knife, sword or axe, before full decapitation – the brain’s function deteriorates rapidly, but perhaps not instantaneously. This would imply that individuals, after suffering a clean and quick decapitation, can still think, perceive, feel and suffer pain and anguish during a few horrible seconds after which the brain, which itself receives no trauma during decapitation, stops functioning because blood loss causes unconsciousness and death.

A related story is here. More on beheadings here. And on capital punishment here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (37): Our Brains

Using modern brain scanning technology, researchers have found delays of about half a second between a person’s brain committing to certain decisions and the person becoming aware of having made them.

Benjamin Libet is famous – or infamous if you want – for his experiments in the 1980s, showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move. Apparently, brain activity – unconscious buildup of electrical charge within the brain – precedes conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words, unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject. If unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, then there is no free will; or if there is free will it shouldn’t be viewed as the initiating force.

If unconscious brain processes have already taken steps to initiate an action before consciousness is aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated. (source)

An example:

scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice. (source, source)

How can a choice be free if scientists can predict it with relative certainty? It seems that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect, a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on our actions and reactions.

If this demotion of free will is correct – and that’s a big if – then rights violations aren’t caused by people who decide to violate them. They are instead caused by their brains. This is a depressing idea because it implies that we can’t do much about rights violations, short of clinical or chemical interventions in the brain. It also implies that we can’t hold violators responsible for their actions, since it’s their brains rather than their conscious volition that is the real cause of those actions.

More on free will here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (52): Brain Dysfunctions Caused by Early Childhood Adversity

Children in orphanages, in poor quality day care centers, children of teenagers or children with one or two parents incarcerated often experience neglect, lack of stimuli, adversity and even abuse. Studies have shown that this kind of adversity, especially if it takes place during the first two years of life,

can damage the brain as surely as inhaling toxic substances or absorbing a blow to the head can. And after the age of two, much of that damage can be difficult to repair, even for children who go on to receive the nurturing they were denied in their early years. … For a long time, social science has known of correlations between childhood turmoil and all sorts of adult maladies that carry massive social and financial costs—mental illness, addiction, tendencies toward violence. … [Recent] science suggests that many of these problems have roots earlier than is commonly understood—especially during the first two years of life. … [A]dversity during this period affects the brain, down to the level of DNA. (source)

Early childhood adversity such as neglect, abuse or the stress produced by extreme poverty weakens and distorts the development of the brain and sets the body’s hormonal stress function on permanent high alert.

Here are some examples of the ways in which early childhood adversity affects the brain in a lasting manner:

[A] baby who endures prolonged abuse or neglect is likely to end up with an enlarged amygdala: a part of the brain that helps generate the fear response. Some of the earliest and most important research establishing this process dates to the 1950s, when investigators observed that rats were better at solving problems if they got more nurturing at very young ages. … Subsequent research showed that persistent childhood stress also leads to significant physical problems, such as far higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. … Early adversity … can interfere with planning ability, cognitive flexibility, problems with memory, and all of those will correlate with diminished IQ. … One 2010 paper from Psychological Medicine concluded that “childhood adversities”—a category that includes abusive parenting and economic hardship—were associated with about one in five cases of “severely impairing” mental disorders and about one in four anxiety disorders in adulthood. (source)

So there is evidence of a causal connection between trouble in very early childhood and problems that occur later in life. Notwithstanding the fact that some affected children end up OK and that others may benefit from later interventions, the cited effects are often tenacious in later life. That means that preventing them requires concentrated action during those crucial first two years. Providing very young children with stable, responsive and nurturing relationships in the family, in school and in the neighborhood can prevent or reverse the effect of early childhood adversity, stress and neglect.

And the interesting part from our point of view is that the effects of early adversity are not limited to mental disorders and crime. These effects cause and perpetuate poverty. Hormonal and brain functions that are distorted by adversity and stress result in learning difficulties:

Children who fail to develop coping mechanisms struggle from the earliest days in school, because even the slightest provocations or setbacks destroy their focus and attention. They can’t sit still and read. They have trouble standing in line. They lash out at classmates or teachers. And these struggles, naturally, lead to other problems that perpetuate the cycle of poverty. All of this is to say that the science of early childhood may play a significant role in the dominant political question of our time: rising inequality. (source)

That means that anti-poverty measures should focus on very young children. Such measures have lifelong benefits for learning, behavior and health. Not only are such early measures more effective in the struggle against poverty than attempts to reverse damage later in life – they are probably also less costly.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (51): Human Rights and Universal Moral Grammar

It seems that human morality is to some extent ingrained in the human mind and that humans possess an innate moral faculty which we can call Universal Moral Grammar (UMG). “Innate” here refers to

cognitive systems whose essential properties are largely pre-determined by the inherent structure of the mind, but whose ontogenetic development must be triggered and shaped by appropriate experience and can be impeded by unusually hostile learning environments. (source)

Perhaps it’s evolution that has wired moral grammar into our neural circuits. Social living requires constraints on behavior and those constraints can be favored by natural selection because of their survival value.

This theory is similar to the linguistic claims made by Chomsky about universal grammar and about the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Analogously, we know moral rules without having learned them, and this knowledge is universal across cultures.

For example, 3–4-year-old children use intent or purpose to distinguish two acts that have the same result. They also distinguish ‘genuine’ moral violations (e.g. battery or theft) from violations of social conventions (e.g. wearing pajamas to school). 4–5-year-olds use a proportionality principle to determine the correct level of punishment for principals and accessories. 5–6-year-olds use false factual beliefs but not false moral beliefs to exculpate*. (source)

Indeed, even animals have feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity.

The UMG can help to explain some universal and cross-cultural intuitive judgments in moral thought experiments such as the Trolley Problem (almost universal acceptance) or Fat Man and forced organ transplant (almost universal rejection). These universal judgments are best explained by the existence of stable and innate intuitions and tacit knowledge of rules and concepts because the judgments are quick, unreflective, difficult to justify and identical across demographic groups (including children).

Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction [between these moral dilemmas] …, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it? (source)

None of this excludes the possibility that a lot of what we think we know about morality comes from teaching, nurturing, our own reasoning or even our self-interest. Furthermore, innate dispositions, if they exist, can be developed or blocked. Hence, the UMG theory is not necessarily deterministic or self-sufficient, and can accommodate other types of moral cognition as well as the less than universal factual morality of mankind (if UMG were all that mattered and if it were as deterministic as it often sounds, then there wouldn’t be immoral acts).

What does all this have to do with human rights? Those rights are outside of the UMG, partly because they are too specific. UMG is more about very abstract and general rules, such as intent, proportionality, people as ends instead of instruments etc. However, some human rights may be a part of UMG: do not kill, rape or steal are universal moral rules and are part of the UMG that even children know, and they are also translated into human rights.

More importantly, however, the existence of a UMG belies cultural relativism and can support the construction of a detailed universal morality. And finally, elements of UMG, such as the notions of intent and proportionality in moral condemnation and of moral exculpation based on false factual beliefs, have important ramifications for criminal justice and hence for human rights. Human rights restrictions on criminal punishment can be independently supported by UMG.

More posts in this series are here.

* For example killing someone because you mistake the person for a deer, as opposed to killing someone because you believe killing is OK.