Category: Public Talk Series

In poverty, is your heart your stress ball?

University of Pittsburgh researcher Peter Gianaros speaks on poverty and stress for the last CNS Public Talk of the academic year. Image from the CNS

This year’s CNS Public Talk Series wrapped up April 4 with a foray into poverty, stress and heart disease — not the usual suspects for a neuroscience lecture. But speaker Peter Gianaros’ goal was to address health inequalities as a problem for neuroscience, and he started by explaining his own journey from studying cardiovascular disease risk to studying the brain.

That journey began with a decision to address the “elephant in the room” for health research: the fact that those living in poverty suffer more chronic illness across the board, including heart disease. Since stress affects cardiovascular responses, and low socioeconomic status individuals experience more stress, Gianaros focused on those two links.

Gianaros and colleagues have used behavioral paradigms to track factors like stress and emotional reactions, and they’ve turned to brain imaging to examine the corresponding brain systems. They’ve also tracked subjects’ education level, income and occupation — three factors the social science literature has shown tap into distinct aspects of social standing. Finally, to gauge effects on the heart, they looked at intima media thickness. IMT measures thickness of the arterial wall, with higher thickness indicating greater risk for heart disease.

Sifting through all these elements, the research has so far pointed to surprising connections, which help explain the greater vulnerability of low SES individuals to cardiovascular disease. SES shows an inverse relationship with IMT — that is, those with low SES have thicker arteries. The likely culprit?  Stress. As indicated by higher amygdala response to threat, these individuals are also more reactive to stress. And separate studies have found that higher amygdala response to threat in turn correlates with higher IMT, highlighting the relevant connection between the heart and the brain.

As Gianaros acknowledged, this work is very much associational — messy for determining cause and effect. After his talk, audience discussion focused on other factors that can alter stress levels, like social support and traumatic incidents. There’s a seemingly unending list of possible mediators. That helps explain why many researchers shy away from SES: it adds complicating layers in a discipline whose MO is to strip the most causal layers away possible.

But Gianaros’ point was that these complications are exactly what seem to drive chronic illness. He ended by calling for neuroscientists to pay more attention to health inequalities, and for inequalities researchers to pay more attention to neuroscience. In that respect, the CNS is already on board.

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Beware a fast track to “better brains”

A personalized home page on Lumosity, a member of the growing community of companies to offer online brain training. (Yes,

A personalized home page on Lumosity, one of the growing number of companies that offer online brain training. 

It’s an alluring promise: play some games and get smarter. That’s the idea behind brain training, which has piggybacked off neuroscience to become its own little commercial field. Groups like LearningRx and Lumosity — you may have seen ads for the latter — offer regimes of online games meant to improve aspects of cognition like memory, attention and speed.

Brain training was the subject of last week’s CNS Public Talk, given by University of Maryland professor and working memory researcher Susanne Jaeggi. Jaeggi became a media go-to on the topic after publishing a paper in 2008 suggesting that memory training can boost general intelligence, that hard-to-pin-down quality long associated with IQ scores. Unfortunately, I missed Jaeggi’s lecture. But I’ve been prompted by her appearance at Penn to look into brain training from both the academic and commercial sides. What I’ve begun to find is that the two sides sometimes get way too blurred, an outcome not all that surprising for a topic with so much popular appeal.

Brain training’s made waves in the press, and it’s not hard to see why. Most people I know, myself included, experience internal wars between our aspirational and lazy impulses. We like to get better at things, but what we really love is to see results after putting in the least work possible. On its surface, brain training answers both desires: it’s packaged as a way we can make ourselves smarter in half-hour long chunks a few times a week. It’s a time commitment that amounts to keeping up with a couple new TV shows, and an experience that amounts to playing basic computer games.

Slap the “neuroscience-supported” label on there and you’ve got a gold mine: a new approach to self-help, legitimized by the oft-misunderstood authority that is “science.”

OK, at this point I might be sounding too cynical. Yes, my inner curmudgeon balks at the idea of intelligence or smarts being stripped down to technical terms like “working memory,” at the neglect of traits like creativity and depth of thought. But on a basic level, I’m all for tools that can make lives better. It’d be great if brain training could genuinely help individuals with cognitive problems, young students, or really just anyone improve at everyday facets of thinking like juggling many pieces of information. Better still if these improvements translate to other aspects of thinking — say, problem solving and communicating — that may reflect broader intelligence.

And beyond the potential benefits, there is reason to at least study brain training in relation to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s capacity to change. After all, some nosing through the work of training supporters like Jaeggi shows that the relevant research doesn’t come from hacks.

My thing is, though, the most encouraging (if still controversial) work here has been behavioral. When it comes to endorsing these specific training methods, the support from neuroscience is largely indirect or speculative.  So as I explore my trial Lumosity account — where I can’t do much, since I won’t pay — it’s hard not to sigh when the site references “neurogenesis” to explain how these games will better my brain.

Isn’t it enough to tell me that if I keep playing the offered memory games, I might stop leaving my keys everywhere? Do these sites have to make dubious claims like they’re literally spurring the growth of new neurons in my brain? A more academic perspective says no: the most recent training-related paper on Jaeggi’s site concludes that more research is needed to say anything about how working memory training actually affects the brain.

So maybe the claims on sites like Lumosity should change. Brain training’s not so much “neuroscience-approved” — it’s got some behavioral support that’s still being interpreted. Any support from neuroscience is very much under construction.

Animal research: It’s about more than cute kittens

Protesters at Oxford defend animal testing, in a photo shown by Colin Blakemore during a recent talk at Penn. Image from scienceblogs.com

It’s not often that you get to hear a lecture from a scientist who’s braved death threats just to do his work. But Penn was treated to that unique perspective this past Thursday, when Colin Blakemore delivered this month’s installment of the CNS talk series. Living up to his reputation as one of science’s most influential communicators, Blakemore reviewed the controversial history of animal research and considered what this history says about science’s relationship with the public. He also pointed out lessons for the future of animal testing — what people on both sides of this issue should have learned by now, with years of nastiness behind them.

A physiologist and pioneer in cognitive neuroscience, Blakemore became a famed advocate for animal research sort of by accident.  In the ’60s and ’70s he conducted research on cortical plasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize its functions. His test subjects? Kittens, which most of us know as pets, adornments for Hallmark cards and the stars of fawning videos on YouTube. The experiments involved sewing up these little guys’ eyelids, in ways that proved informative for human vision and contributed to major breakthroughs in our understanding of plasticity. These academic achievements aside, it’s not shocking that the hostility kicked up soon after, in response to Blakemore’s use of precious creatures but also to his frank defense of animal research.

What might be shocking is the intensity of the backlash. Blakemore and his family received bomb threats and letters concealing razor blades, and he has been personally assaulted by masked aggressors. All this drove Blakemore to secure police protection for his children for over a decade. Clearly he doesn’t agree with these tactics, or with the opinion that animal testing is just plain wrong. But Blakemore does believe the testing should be openly discussed. In particular, he said, we’ve got to ask: How should scientists and ethicists assess animal experiments? What levels of scientific and medical progress can justify their use? How do we deal with animal suffering? What alternatives have we not yet considered?

These questions overlap with issues of public opinion, as it is often individuals outside science who raise the most pointed (if sometimes ill-informed) critiques. On this note, Blakemore called upon scientists to figure out the most effective ways to engage with the public. This is no easy task, given the many contradictions in the public opinion surveys Blakemore reviewed. At least in Britain, people trust scientists much more than they trust the media, and yet they find themselves relying on the media for most of their information about science. Moreover, while they report being impressed by findings from science, they are often suspicious of its motives. Thus part of the challenge lies in educating people without imposing, or even seeming to impose, an aggressive agenda.

There has been progress: death threats and grave digging by animal rights extremists appear to have ceased. These days, Blakemore is more apt to be caught off guard by protest signs like one he spotted with the declaration, “Vegetarians for animal research.” If that slogan is a sign of the times, then views on animal research have gained some nuance. But of course, in the world of science and ethics, there’s always more work to be done.

On Brain Rumors: an hour with Neuroskeptic

NSkeptic

Neuroskeptic’s popular anonymous blog

In the world of science blogging, Neuroskeptic is kind of like our James Dean: talented, famous and mysterious. His site gets an average of 1500 to 2000 hits a day — not too shabby for someone who covers such alluring topics as statistical methods and ways to improve neuroscience.

Making a rare public appearance, Neuroskeptic came to Penn last week as part of the CNS Talk Series, delivering a lecture Thursday night called “Brain Rumors: Public (Mis)understanding of Neuroscience and Why it Matters.” His main point was simple: Neuroscience matters because people take it seriously, perhaps too seriously.

Before the lecture, I got to chat with him blogger to (much more famous) blogger. We talked about everything from what makes good science writing to why hotter people may not be any nicer. Read on.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What motivated you to start your blog?

So about four years ago, I was doing my PhD and using fMRI, and I kind of felt like I and other people in that area had been given the job of using these fMRI analyses, these really complicated and amazing techniques, without really being aware of how to use them properly. Looking around, I realized that this might have been a widespread problem — that we in neuroscience had all these really useful techniques, but people just sort of dived in to use them without thinking about whether they should be [applying them to] particular questions, or how to use them best. So I started the blog as a way of educating myself — to help myself, really, but also as a way of starting a conversation on this issue. Then other things caught my eye, and it kind of snowballed.

You recently posted about a psych study questioning the tendency to “judge a book by its cover,” or judge personality by attractiveness. You said something interesting about how debunking these kinds of everyday misconceptions is what psychology should do — what did you mean by that, and why? 

I don’t think that’s all psychology should do, cover what the public finds interesting. But I think with psychology in particular, there’s a kind of disdain for things which are everyday and mundane. I think psychology has often tried to come up with novel ideas and novel experiments, which is great — like looking at things that people haven’t looked at before, and that’s fine. But that’s by its nature sort of arcane, and I think we shouldn’t overlook things like “judging a book by its cover,” which everyone is kind of interested in. That’s directly relevant to people’s lives and has actual consequences. Whereas I think if you’re looking at, I don’t know, the effect of the color of a room on people’s mood — I guess that could be relevant, if you then start painting everyone’s room, but it’s not part of people’s lives already. Whereas other things are, and I think we need to pay more attention to those.

So you think the sort of “basic science” research like the room color stuff should be balanced out by “everyday” questions.

Yeah. I think there’s a tendency for psychologists to think, well, if everyone sort of knows how this works, then there’s not much interesting there for me as a psychologist. But I don’t think that’s true. Very often people think they know how something works, but they don’t, like in this “judging a book by its cover” thing, where everyone’s got an opinion — but they might be wrong. And there might be a really interesting scientific story behind why even a wrong belief is there.

For something like judging personality by attractiveness, though, why would we even need scientific studies? Can’t we rely on our folk psychology to tell us that a “better-looking” person won’t necessarily have a better personality?

Well in that case, it isn’t obvious that there’s isn’t a correlation — there could have been one. And there are other studies suggesting that there is. Folk psychology is great in its place, but I think this is one of those cases where it doesn’t work. Folk psychology is fine for understanding individual people and actions and motivations. But it really doesn’t work for things like correlations, because the average person knows, well, maybe a few dozen people, a few hundred people at best. And that’s not big enough to make a correlation, especially because the vast majority of people only know a very restricted kind of person.

So if you want to know, say, if nationality is associated with personality, as just an average person you’re never going to be able to know that. Because most of your friends will be of one nationality, probably. For anything where you’re looking beyond what happens in an individual person’s head to the influences and associations across the whole population, [folk psychology] is not going to work.

Regarding your opinions on what science can and cannot do — as in the “Neuroscience Under Attack” articleyou’ve been portrayed as being especially critical of neuroscience. Can you talk about what you actually are trying to do in relation to the field of neuroscience? 

So there was that New York Times article, and there was one in the New Yorker as well…[those articles] were fundamentally fine. They covered important issues like methodology and the interpretation of neuroscience. But they kind of left it there, without acknowledging that those criticisms themselves can be subject to criticisms. And they only apply to particular things. I see myself as criticizing the problems with neuroscience, but also celebrating all the good stuff. I think those kinds of articles simplify what I and other bloggers like me are trying to do, which is to identify the problems so that neuroscience can advance better.

[Note: You can read his blog response to these articles here.] 

There’s a sense of [back-and-forth] in neuroscience, where everyone in the media’s kind of done with liking neuroscience, so now it’s time to switch it. You just have to remember that it’s not black and white at all. Just as in the past neuroscience was getting really enthusiastic and over-stretching interpretations, when studies that really didn’t show anything dramatic were being presented as the best thing ever — now there’s a danger that we’ll do the opposite thing.

I think it many ways, [this backlash] has just started. I predict it will get bigger, probably. But on the other hand, in my experience probably the great majority of journalists working in this area are actually pretty good and know that there’s more caveats. I just think that all journalists kind of suffer from this [problem], where they can’t write from their full range of knowledge because it won’t make a good article.

When you write a post, how do you balance accessibility with not compromising content?

I’d say that’s one of the hardest things in writing, actually, and I didn’t used to be able to do it nearly as well as I can now. I think to make something accessible while being accurate — I really believe you can do that to almost anything. There’s nothing so inherently complicated that you can’t explain it, except mathematics, which may be impossible to explain without using mathematical terms. But certainly in biology and neuroscience, there’s nothing you can’t explain. I think the trick is, you’ve got to know it inside out so you can explain it in simple terms.

You mentioned needing a solid background in a topic to write about it well. But realistically, a lot of journalism comes down to being assigned to write quickly about something you’re not an expert on. Do you think that sort of framework for journalism has to be changed in order for people to write properly about science? 

I used to think, yeah, that it’s just like a broken model and it’s not going to work. But since I’ve been blogging, I’ve come into contact with more journalists, and I think actually it can work. The funny thing is, in an awful lot of these cases where scientific things look complicated, they are a lot simpler than they seem. And once you understand one of these issues inside out, you sort of see all the parallels with the next one. My advice would be, find one thing that really interests you and figure out exactly how it’s working, and where all the different players are coming from. Because scientists in particular, what they do is in many ways very predictable. In any given story, you’re going to have the guy who proposes a radical new idea, the guy who comes along and says “that’s bad” because he has a big idea of his own, and then you have people who don’t care either way but criticize the methods. And then the press release will come along and distort all of this in particular ways.

Once you learn that, it helps you to see through all the details. Most of neuroscience, it differs hugely in the details but once you look beneath that it’s kind of like — there’s this theory that all fiction covers one of seven basic plots, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I think in nonfiction it is true. I almost want to say, any given piece of science is a lot less innovative than it first appears. It sort of follows a basic pattern. And obviously there are new results coming out of that pattern, but the pattern is the same. It depends on the field of science, but in neuroscience there are maybe three or four basic patterns.

What are those three or four basic patterns?

So in neuroscience, you have the “this part of the brain is responsible for this major function” pattern. You’ve got the “factor causes outcome,” pattern, like drinking shrinks your brain, or infection with flu during pregnancy causes schizophrenia. Or smoking causes psychosis. And those studies always have the same criticisms as well, like, did you adjust for confounding factors, that kind of thing. And then there’s the more conceptual kind of work, where you’re asking how are we best to talk about particular mental/brain function. And that sounds quite abstract, but usually it’s a similar process, where people are asking whether we should lump two things together as a single thing with the same causes and the same mechanism. People may say, for example, should we lump together decision making and emotion, do they say the same basic thing? Or in autism, people say, should we cast facial emotion recognition and social skills as part of the same theory of mind?

And there are more patterns than that, but I’d have to spend some time thinking about it so I can enumerate them all. It’s kind of like, you know them when you see them.

One last question – why the vigilant anonymity for your blog? 

There are a couple different reasons. When I started out, blogging in neuroscience was much less accepted than it is today. There weren’t very many bloggers around and they weren’t respected, really, by anyone. So I felt like that could be a problem. But I also find it really helpful to be able to keep my blogging and my real work separate, because otherwise there’s a conflict of interest. And I do that by not blogging about my own work. I feel it would be much harder to remain impartial writing under my own name, because it would influence how I blogged about things, even if it wasn’t stuff that I wasn’t working on in the moment but that I could be working on in the future. It’s mainly a case of trying to maintain integrity.

But there are lots of people who blog under their own name and they’ve got integrity, so it’s kind of a personal choice, really. To be honest, it’s more of a habit now. I’ve been doing it for four years, and it’s kind of like my brand.

Empathy: of monkeys and men

Photo by Frans de Waal, from greatergood.berkeley.edu

In a world where violence and aggression make it easy to despair of one’s fellow man, it’s nice when science reminds us that oftentimes, like other primates, we just want to feel the love.

On Wednesday, Oct. 24, the CNS brought preeminent primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University to give the first annual GVR Khodadad Endowed Lecture on “Prosocial Primates: Selfish and Unselfish Motives.” Dr. de Waal has long studied animal behavior and has made particular waves with his findings on primate empathy, challenging two influential notions: one, that non-human animals do not feel emotions we consider to be complex, and two, that humans and our closest relatives are fundamentally brutes. It was a fun twist to launch the Khodadad lectures with a talk on primates helping each other, given that lecture sponsors Ghahreman Khodadad and sons created their fund to examine the biological bases of aggression and selfishness. In front of a large, professionally diverse crowd (which included the Khodadads), Dr. de Waal shared insights on prosocial primate interactions.

One of his most interesting points was that a behavior can seem unselfish from an animal’s perspective even if it does have long-term gains for the individual, blurring the line between what is “selfish” or “unselfish.” He also noted that empathy has two components: the cognitive capacity to understand the feelings of another individual, and the emotional capacity to share those feelings (a psychopath, for example, might have the cognitive capacity but lack the emotional one). And though Dr. de Waal was careful to note that empathy can work differently in humans than in our close evolutionary relatives, much of his talk focused on what we’ve got in common – which is what our self-centered species likes to hear, anyway.

I had the chance to chat with Dr. de Waal on changing views of animal behavior, roles for neuroscience in his research, science in politics and more:

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What attracted you to the study of empathy?

I’m attracted to animals in general – actually, my initial interest was aggressive behavior and violence, things like that, and power politics. And in that context I discovered that chimpanzees reconcile after fights, which became a big deal because no one thought that that was possible, and no one had studied it before. So instead of focusing on aggression I began to focus on the other side, how do they maintain relationships. In those studies I also discovered that they reassure each other when they’re very upset, such as when a juvenile is upset or a male has lost a battle with another male. Then later I discovered that, in talking with psychologists, the way they study empathy in children is exactly the same. They ask a family member to cry, and they see how young children react. And the children who then approach, and touch them, and look up at them and ask them how they’re doing, if they can talk – [psychologists] call that behavior “sympathetic concern.” So they classify it under empathy, and I said, “Well, if that’s empathy, then my chimps have empathy!”

How much do you think your work has changed how people view continuity between other primates and humans?

Oh, I think quite a bit. In the area of conflict resolution, certainly, and power politics. But also with the whole empathy issue, about 10 years ago no one talked about empathy in animals, and now there are lots of studies, not just in the primates – there are even rodent studies now. That whole topic has been broken open. Initially there was some resistance, people saying, well, empathy is a human thing, it’s not something that animals do, but that view is disappearing quite rapidly, I think.

Do you think this suggests that aggression plays a less important role [in behavior] than we previously thought?

No, unfortunately aggression is always there, it’s not going to disappear. But there are other mechanisms that compensate for it and help counter it.

This is an interesting time in American politics with the elections coming up, and in the past you’ve lamented the ways politicians have misconstrued science for their own purposes. How do you think your research can inform or correct some of this misuse?

I think the way science is sometimes misused is that some people believe that nature is all “red tooth,” and tooth and claw, and we need to model society on the way nature is. There are sort of two questionable assumptions there: one is that nature is “red tooth” and claw, and I think there’s much more to nature than just that – there are many animals who are cooperative. And the second [assumption] is, where does that idea come from, that society needs to mimic nature? But that’s sort of the Social Darwinist view, that nature is harsh and society needs to be harsh, as if that’s based in biology somehow. I think that’s a very questionable [view] of biology.

The evolution of altruism has been another controversial topic, and it’s related to empathy – what kind of story has emerged in terms of possible evolutionary bases of empathy?

For empathy, I think we’re pretty clear. The scientists who work on empathy in humans think it started with maternal care, and I think the same thing. That’s why all the mammals have some degree of empathy, because all the mammals have maternal care, by definition. So it started with females needing to pay attention to the offspring, their needs, their hunger, their fears, and so on…to help them survive. And that explains two things: why empathy is more developed in females than males, which is universally shown for the human species,* and we’re finding that increasingly with animals, at least with mammals. And also the role of oxytocin in empathy, which is increasingly studied, hence the connection with maternal care. And I’m not sure you can divorce mammalian altruism from empathy, because certainly the most dominant hypothesis to explain human altruism is that it runs via empathy. Of course we are sometimes altruistic without that, [you can have] a businessman who helps you in the expectation that maybe in the future he’ll get benefits – that sort of stuff happens also. There may be no empathy whatsoever involved, so humans are not restricted by that. But most human altruism – as in, say, we send money to tsunami victims in Japan – that’s all triggered by empathy.

(*The relationship between empathy and gender is worth exploring, as to some it remains a contested nature vs. nurture issue.)

What are some pressing questions you have left for your research?

We’re still looking at how cooperation works, how well animals understand their own cooperation. For empathy there’s a ton of studies that can be done – some of it will require neuroscience, though with chimpanzees it’s virtually impossible. With humans you can put them in a brain scanner and ask them questions, or show them a video of something they react to, but if you put a chimpanzee in a scanner you have to knock them down. So that excludes all these experiments. One day there will be neuroscience in this work – I think we will see the day you can put just a little helmet on them or something, or train them to stick their head in a helmet, or whatever it is, but we’re not at that point yet.

Are there any particular neuroscientists, or sub-fields within neuroscience, that you would really like to work with?

At Emory there’s tons of neuroscientists, and I’ve worked a little bit with people on autism, because autism is often seen as a deficit in empathy. I’ve also worked with people who want to do oxytocin studies in primates, or who want to do those sorts of things with children. There’s an enormous amount of contact [between fields]. What I like about neuroscience is that they have broken open that taboo on emotions. In animal behavior you were not allowed to talk about emotions…but the neuroscientists, they started testing fear in rats, and love in humans, and all sorts of emotions, and they noticed that the same brain areas are involved in fear in rats and fear in humans. All of a sudden that whole taboo started to crumble, because clearly if the neuroscientists take the emotions of animals seriously…then the behavioral scientists like myself are freer to talk about them and do something with them.

Greetings! And a note on skulls + the neuroscience of group differences

Samples from the Morton skull collection. Image from Discover magazine via Steven Minicola

Welcome one and all to a new blog run by an effusive undergraduate studying Cognitive Neuroscience at Penn! I’ll be writing about the social role of neuroscience and related issues, in particular as they are explored by Penn’s Center for Neuroscience & Society, where I work  – for details, check out the ‘About’ section.

I’m starting off with a CNS event I’ll be covering regularly: the Public Talk Series, monthly lectures on neuroscience and social issues. This year’s series kicked off Oct. 4 via a special collaboration with the Penn Museum, entitled “From Skulls to Scans: How Brain Measurements Have Been Used, Misused and Misunderstood in the Study of Racial Differences.” Drawing from the Museum’s famous Morton skull collection as a starting point, anthropologist Janet Monge, neurologist Geoffrey Aguirre and Penn Law faculty member Dorothy Roberts examined the way neuroscience has historically been (mis)used in social constructions of race. The talks centered on the controversial attempts of Samuel Morton – a 19th century Philadelphia physician and Penn graduate – to align skin tone with brain profiles and intelligence ratings. The famous evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once critiqued Morton’s work as suffering from biased measurements, but the panel came to a different conclusion: Morton’s measurements were physically spot-on. It was their interpretation that created the problem.

Monge pointed out that since Morton’s research questions were biased, preemptively assuming certain behavioral differences between races, his technically correct methodology could not be put to good use. Aguirre then put the issue in contemporary context by overviewing modern methods for studying group differences. He noted that although new technologies – particularly fMRI  – are far more advanced than the tools available to Morton, they still leave room for error and are equally helpless in compensating for researcher bias. In other words, as long as researchers begin studies with already defined group differences in mind, their interpretations will be skewed, no matter how fancy or technically accurate their methodology.  Finally, Roberts gave a sociologist’s insight into the sorts of biases that seep into superficially scientific studies of race. For example, she discussed the notion that biological explanations for perceived racial differences can make social inequalities seem inevitable and therefore acceptable, and how this notion might drive interpretations of data to support existing stereotypes. All this discussion made the broader point that data interpretation is not necessarily neutral to researchers’ biases, especially in a topic that can be as socially charged as group differences.

Which brings me to a study published this month in the PNAS journal on the brain and reading ability, a trait often used to sort children into groups at school. Researchers at Stanford University have reported a correlation between white matter development in children aged 7-12 and their performance on standardized reading assessments. On the one hand, this is an interesting addition to the growing body of research on child brain development that may relate to and even benefit education. If this study can shed light on when to start reading interventions, or which cognitive processes interventions should target, that could be good news for educators. On the other hand, much like with studies of brain anatomy and race, these results could be fodder for careless misinterpretations – e.g. deciding that brains scans will tell you whether  or not a child should be in the advanced reading class for the rest of her time in school. The difference between those interpretations lies in an appreciation of nuance and an avoidance of pre-existing stereotypes (which in this case might include, say, the belief that “low-performing” students can never improve). And as Monge, Aguirre and Roberts pointed out, nuance and open-mindedness are crucial to keep in mind when neuroscience takes on group differences. Heavy but important fare for the Public Talk Series’ inaugural lecture – and if you haven’t yet had the chance to do so, I recommend that you ponder all this while checking out those Morton skulls.