social life and the changing expressions of genes

social isolation

The Social Life of Genes by David Dobbs at Pacific Stan­dard

The recent explo­sion of inter­est in “epi­ge­net­ics” — a term lit­er­ally mean­ing “around the gene,” and refer­ring to any­thing that changes a gene’s effect with­out chang­ing the actual DNA sequence — has tended to focus on the long game of gene-​environment inter­ac­tions: how famine among expec­tant moth­ers in the Nether­lands dur­ing World War II, for instance, affected gene expres­sion and behav­ior in their chil­dren; or how mother rats, by lick­ing and groom­ing their pups more or less assid­u­ously, can alter the wrap­pings around their offspring’s DNA in ways that influ­ence how anx­ious the pups will be for the rest of their lives. The idea that expe­ri­ence can echo in our genes across gen­er­a­tions is cer­tainly a pow­er­ful one. But to focus only on these nar­row, long-​reaching effects is to miss much of the action where epi­ge­netic influ­ence and gene activ­ity is con­cerned. This fresh work by Robin­son, Fer­nald, Clay­ton, and oth­ers — encom­pass­ing stud­ies of mul­ti­ple organ­isms, from bees and birds to mon­keys and humans — sug­gests some­thing more excit­ing: that our social lives can change our gene expres­sion with a rapid­ity, breadth, and depth pre­vi­ously overlooked.

Why would we have evolved this way? The most prob­a­ble answer is that an organ­ism that responds quickly to fast-​changing social envi­ron­ments will more likely sur­vive them. That organ­ism won’t have to wait around, as it were, for bet­ter genes to evolve on the species level. Immu­nol­o­gists dis­cov­ered some­thing sim­i­lar 25 years ago: Adapt­ing to new pathogens the old-​fashioned way — wait­ing for nat­ural selec­tion to favor genes that cre­ate resis­tance to spe­cific pathogens — would hap­pen too slowly to counter the rapidly chang­ing pathogen envi­ron­ment. Instead, the immune sys­tem uses net­works of genes that can respond quickly and flex­i­bly to new threats.

We appear to respond in the same way to our social envi­ron­ment. Faced with an unpre­dictable, com­plex, ever-​changing pop­u­la­tion to whom we must respond suc­cess­fully, our genes behave accord­ingly — as if a fast, fluid response is a mat­ter of life or death.

poverty and its effects on cognition


Poor con­cen­tra­tion: Poverty reduces brain­power needed for nav­i­gat­ing other areas of life by Mor­gan Kelly at News from Princeton

Pre­vi­ous views of poverty have blamed poverty on per­sonal fail­ings, or an envi­ron­ment that is not con­ducive to suc­cess,” she said. “We’re argu­ing that the lack of finan­cial resources itself can lead to impaired cog­ni­tive func­tion. The very con­di­tion of not hav­ing enough can actu­ally be a cause of poverty.”

The men­tal tax that poverty can put on the brain is dis­tinct from stress, Shafir explained. Stress is a person’s response to var­i­ous out­side pres­sures that — accord­ing to stud­ies of arousal and per­for­mance — can actu­ally enhance a person’s func­tion­ing, he said. In the Sci­ence study, Shafir and his col­leagues instead describe an imme­di­ate rather than chronic pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with lim­ited resources that can be a detri­ment to unre­lated yet still impor­tant tasks.

Stress itself doesn’t pre­dict that peo­ple can’t per­form well — they may do bet­ter up to a point,” Shafir said. “A per­son in poverty might be at the high part of the per­for­mance curve when it comes to a spe­cific task and, in fact, we show that they do well on the prob­lem at hand. But they don’t have left­over band­width to devote to other tasks. The poor are often highly effec­tive at focus­ing on and deal­ing with press­ing prob­lems. It’s the other tasks where they per­form poorly.”

The fall­out of neglect­ing other areas of life may loom larger for a per­son just scrap­ing by, Shafir said. Late fees tacked on to a for­got­ten rent pay­ment, a job lost because of poor time-​management — these make a tight money sit­u­a­tion worse. And as peo­ple get poorer, they tend to make dif­fi­cult and often costly deci­sions that fur­ther per­pet­u­ate their hard­ship, Shafir said. He and Mul­lainathan were co-​authors on a 2012 Sci­ence paper that reported a higher like­li­hood of poor peo­ple to engage in behav­iors that rein­force the con­di­tions of poverty, such as exces­sive borrowing.

They can make the same mis­takes, but the out­comes of errors are more dear,” Shafir said. “So, if you live in poverty, you’re more error prone and errors cost you more dearly — it’s hard to find a way out.”

modern slavery: Signal International, LLC


More human traf­fick­ing law­suits filed against Sig­nal Inter­na­tional at the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter website

The South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter announced that five more law­suits have been filed this week against Sig­nal Inter­na­tional LLC, accus­ing the ship­builder and its net­work of recruiters and labor bro­kers of traf­fick­ing 500 Indian guest work­ers to the United States and forc­ing them to work under bar­baric conditions.

The new law­suits filed on behalf of 60 work­ers are part of an unprece­dented effort by some of the nation’s most pres­ti­gious law firms to pros­e­cute, on a pro bono basis, mul­ti­ple human traf­fick­ing law­suits against Sig­nal. In addi­tion to the law­suits filed today, three law firms filed law­suits on behalf of 83 guest work­ers in May…

… The law­suits allege that Sig­nal and its agents defrauded guest work­ers out of mil­lions of dol­lars in exor­bi­tant “recruit­ment fees” and falsely promised help in apply­ing for and obtain­ing per­ma­nent U.S. res­i­dence. The guest work­ers sold fam­ily prop­erty and heir­looms, and incurred crip­pling debt, to each pay as much as $25,000 to Signal.

Once these work­ers were lured to Signal’s ship­yards in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas, they were forced to live in over­crowded, unsan­i­tary and racially seg­re­gated labor camps. The liv­ing con­di­tions not only endan­gered the guest work­ers’ health and psy­cho­log­i­cal well-​being, these work­ers were assigned the most dan­ger­ous and dif­fi­cult jobs due to their race, eth­nic­ity, reli­gion and national ori­gin. They also were threat­ened with finan­cial ruin and depor­ta­tion if they balked.

correspondence with President Obama

letter to the president

Our dif­fer­ences unite us at Let­ters of Note

Pres­i­dent Obama’s reply

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama

Novem­ber 1, 2012

Miss Sophia Bailey-​Klugh

Dear Sophia,

Thank you for writ­ing me such a thought­ful let­ter about your fam­ily. Read­ing it made me proud to be your pres­i­dent and even more hope­ful about the future of our nation.

In Amer­ica, no two fam­i­lies look the same. We cel­e­brate this diver­sity. And we rec­og­nize that whether you have two dads or one mom what mat­ters above all is the love we show one another. You are very for­tu­nate to have two par­ents who care deeply for you. They are lucky to have such an excep­tional daugh­ter in you.

Our dif­fer­ences unite us. You and I are blessed to live in a coun­try where we are born equal no mat­ter what we look like on the out­side, where we grow up, or who our par­ents are. A good rule is to treat oth­ers the way you hope they will treat you. Remind your friends at school about this rule if they say some­thing that hurts your feelings.

Thanks again for tak­ing the time to write to me. I’m hon­ored to have your sup­port and inspired by your com­pas­sion. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to din­ner, but I’ll be sure to tell Sasha and Malia you say hello.


(Signed, ‘Barack Obama’)

animals behaving morally

The kind­ness of beasts by Mark Row­lands at Aeon Mag­a­zine

Binti Jua, a gorilla resid­ing at Brook­field Zoo in Illi­nois, had her 15 min­utes of fame in 1996 when she came to the aid of a three-​year-​old boy who had climbed on to the wall of the gorilla enclo­sure and fallen five metres onto the con­crete floor below. Binti Jua lifted the uncon­scious boy, gen­tly cra­dled him in her arms, and growled warn­ings at other goril­las that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she car­ried the boy to the zoo staff wait­ing at an access gate…

… As long ago as 1959, the exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist Rus­sell Church, now pro­fes­sor at Brown Uni­ver­sity, Rhode Island, demon­strated that rats wouldn’t push a lever that deliv­ered food if doing so caused other rats to receive an elec­tric shock. Like­wise, in 1964, Stan­ley Wechkin and col­leagues at the North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity in Chicago demon­strated that hun­gry rhe­sus mon­keys refused to pull a chain that deliv­ered them food if doing so gave a painful shock to another mon­key. One mon­key per­sisted in this refusal for 12 days.

statistical weakness in scientific studies


Science’s Sig­nif­i­cant Stats Prob­lem by Tom Siegfried at Nau­tilus

…in almost all research fields, stud­ies often draw erro­neous con­clu­sions. Some­times the errors arise because sta­tis­ti­cal tests are mis­used, mis­in­ter­preted, or mis­un­der­stood. And some­times slop­pi­ness, out­right incom­pe­tence, or pos­si­bly fraud is to blame. But even research con­ducted strictly by the book fre­quently fails because of faulty sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods that have been embed­ded in the sci­en­tific process.

There is increas­ing con­cern that in mod­ern research, false find­ings may be the major­ity or even the vast major­ity of pub­lished research claims,” epi­demi­ol­o­gist John P.A. Ioan­ni­dis declared in a land­mark essay pub­lished in 2005 in the jour­nal PLoS Medicine.

Even when a claimed effect does turn out to be cor­rect, its mag­ni­tude is usu­ally over­stated. Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity polit­i­cal sci­en­tist and sta­tis­ti­cian Andrew Gel­man puts it bluntly: “The sci­en­tific method that we love so much is a machine for gen­er­at­ing exaggerations.”

Scan­ning Dead Salmon in fMRI Machine High­lights Risk of Red Her­rings by Alexis Madri­gal at Wired

The Inter­net Found the Atlantic Salmon at

None of the authors intended for the Salmon to go pub­lic in such a big way, espe­cially before the com­men­tary was reviewed and pub­lished. We were actu­ally quite con­tent to pub­lish our edi­to­r­ial in a neu­roimag­ing jour­nal and be done with it. We feel that, fun­da­men­tally, this is an inter­nal debate within the field of neuroimaging.

minority youth and the effects of intolerance

la high school

Liv­ing With Intol­er­ance: What kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal impact does dis­crim­i­na­tion have on minor­ity youth? by Romeo Vitelli, PhD in Psy­chol­ogy Today

Though psy­chol­o­gists have long stud­ied the impact of dis­crim­i­na­tion on minor­ity ado­les­cents, there are still unan­swered ques­tions about what causes the dis­crim­i­na­tion to hap­pen and the how ado­les­cents can deal with it.

Iron­i­cally, racial and eth­nic ten­sion in schools and neigh­bour­hoods often rises with increased eth­nic diver­sity. As more minor­ity groups come in and the pro­por­tion of estab­lished minor­ity group pop­u­la­tions change, cul­tural clashes cre­ate a neg­a­tive racial or eth­nic cli­mate. This trig­gers greater ten­sion as well as inci­dents of ver­bal or phys­i­cal abuse. Since teach­ing staff are often unable to keep up with these changes, minor­ity group mem­bers often see them­selves as being “on their own” and not being able to rely on author­ity fig­ures to help.

As a result, ado­les­cents who expe­ri­ence racial/​ethnic dis­crim­i­na­tion fre­quently expe­ri­ence more psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress and poorer per­for­mance in school. Mea­sur­ing the impact of dis­crim­i­na­tion is often dif­fi­cult since it can be hard to detect at times. Even the source of the dis­crim­i­na­tion, whether from author­ity fig­ures, teach­ers, or peers can make a dif­fer­ence in how it affects young peo­ple. Teacher dis­crim­i­na­tion, for instance, is more likely to affect how well ado­les­cents do in school. Abuse or bul­ly­ing com­ing from a fel­low stu­dent, on the other hand, is more likely to affect self-​esteem and social development.

an interview with Sally Satel


Q&A: Sally Satel, psy­chi­a­trist, on the flaws of brain research by Christie Nichol­son at smart­planet

below is an excerpt from this interview

Smart­Planet: Frito-​Lay com­mis­sioned a study of women’s brains as they looked at their chip bags. Appar­ently the brain scans showed that the ante­rior cin­gu­late cor­tex lit up, an area often asso­ci­ated with feel­ings of guilt. Researchers con­cluded that women felt guilty when look­ing at the shiny bags con­tain­ing high-​calorie snacks. So the com­pany switched to matte bags in the hopes of reliev­ing neg­a­tive emo­tions asso­ci­ated with their brand. What is wrong with this strategy?

Sally Satel: Well first there’s no guilt cen­ter in the brain. So infer­ring that the ante­rior cin­gu­late cor­tex is telling you that you feel guilty is a leap.

This is one of the big issues with fMRI interpretations.

Right. One of the big­ger prob­lems with naive inter­pre­ta­tion is some­thing called the reverse infer­ence prob­lem. And what that means is — as they did in that Frito-​Lay study –- [researchers] look at a part of a brain that is dif­fer­en­tially acti­vated dur­ing a task, and the “task” is often hav­ing the per­son look at an image, lis­ten to a sound, or be pre­sented with a prob­lem [to think through].

Of course you’re going to see more activ­ity in cer­tain areas of the brain than in other areas. But look­ing at the brain scan image and work­ing back­wards from that to what a per­son is think­ing is very fraught.


For this rea­son: Var­i­ous regions in the brain play a role in medi­at­ing many dif­fer­ent kinds of sub­jec­tive emo­tional states.

Could you unpack that state­ment a bit?

For exam­ple, the ante­rior cin­gu­late is fre­quently cited as impor­tant in the pro­cess­ing of error detec­tion or con­flict. But that’s not quite the same as guilt. That’s one issue.

Another region of the brain that is fre­quently cited is the amyg­dala. It is most famous for being a fairly prim­i­tive area involved in the pro­cess­ing of fear. And that’s true, but it’s also rel­e­vant to the pro­cess­ing of nov­elty, sur­prise, anger and hap­pi­ness. So, to just basi­cally pick the emo­tion that suits your pur­pose is a prob­lem. In the Frito-​Lay case, I’m sure they imag­ined that women feel guilty when they eat high-​fattening foods; so that was con­sis­tent with the nar­ra­tive that the adver­tis­ers had imagined.