Organs for transplant: Improving the supply by shifting the policy (from opting in to opting out)

By Linda Stamato

Most people support organ donation and organ transplants but, as it turns out, they don’t donate. Given the former, how do we encourage the latter? How does (or can) society encourage positive behavior? Should government attempt to affect certain decision-making behaviors? Whether we’re talking about limiting climate change, for example, or promoting healthy living, or donating organs, one crucial question is whether (and, if yes, when) to use the techniques and tools of science, particularly cognitive science, to try to steer people toward better choices.

In “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” (The New York Times Magazine) Jon Gertner explores this question. He is struck by the fact that Americans fail to place concerns about climate change, for example, high on the nation’s list of critical priorities and so individuals fail to make decisions and take actions that reflect that concern. Accordingly, policy experts are turning to the work of cognitive scientists, especially those who work in the area of decision science, to discern ways to encourage behavior changes to protect the environment and limit negative climate change.

An image from an organ donation website

This same research is remarkably useful in consumer psychology and may offer a critical insight into how to increase the availability of organs for transplant. Richard Thaler, a pioneer in the field, and author, with Cass Sunstein, of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008), conducted research on consumer savings patterns that has direct relevance. Thaler found that many more people saved money in a 401(K) retirement plan if they did not have to take active steps to join the plan. In one study, only 45 percent of a company’s new employees participated in the 401(K) plan when doing so required them to take some kind of action, like filling out a form. However, 86 percent participated when doing so was the default option.

And, Max Bazerman, along with colleagues at the Harvard Business School, investigated how people make unwise tradeoffs. One finding is particularly relevant. It’s this: Most people agree that organ donation makes sense, but, as noted above, they don’t donate. Most people accept the default position, the status quo. It is not that people are deciding not to donate; rather, they are not thinking about it. In countries other than the United States, the default is that unless you specify that you do not want to donate your organs, you become a viable donor at death. In the U.S., unless you actively decide to donate, you are not likely to be a donor. Thus, the default approach that society imposes dramatically affects donor rates. As a result of the U.S system, according to Bazerman, 6,000 people die each year who might not have given a change in the default.

Organs in the body that can be donated and transplanted

There really is a difference in how a choice is presented.

In “Expand pool of blood donors” the The Star Ledger editorial on 15th of February, 2009, observed:

“When it comes to our blood, we’re selfish. Only 2.5 percent of eligible New Jerseyans donate blood, compared to the national average of 5 percent.
But, oh, when we need blood, when our life hangs in the balance, we want it.”

The same point can be made about all organ and tissue donations. The “Chain of Life” three-part multimedia series by The Star Ledger in June, makes the case urgently and passionately. As does a column that appeared in February, 2009, which featured the lives of the five recipients of the organs of a young man, Dennis Maloosseril, who was killed by a gunman inside a church in Clifton. His parents donated his heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and pancreas to donors. These stories, compelling as they are, help to heighten awareness of the need for organs for transplant. As do efforts, say, by employers to promote organ donation by their employees, such as Rutgers University, my employer, does. And, too, changes in the law such as the New Jersey Hero Act that was signed into law in October of 2008 that requires residents of New Jersey who are applying for a driver’s license to consider becoming organ donors. This consideration certainly does make people think.

But, as important as new law and education efforts are, organ donations will not keep pace with the need for them. (The New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network reports an increase in organ donations but, at the same time, thousands of state residents await organs to save their lives.

We have to think about this problem differently.

We could provide incentives such as life-long Medicare coverage or even tax credits or vouchers. Through greater educational efforts, too, we could hope for a surge in altruism. Fundamentally, though, while these efforts might increase the number of organ donations, the problem will remain unsolved because the need is so great.

In “Enlarging the Societal Pie through Wise Legislation: A Psychological Perspective,” Max Bazerman, this time with fellow authors Jonathan Baron and Katherine Shonk, looked into the psychology of decision-making and the impact on policy. They asked this question, “Why are organ-donor programs constrained to the point where thousands of Americans die needlessly each year?” They posed the following hypothetical:

a. If you die in an auto accident, your heart will be used to save another person’s life. In addition, if you are ever in need of a heart transplant, there will be a 90 percent chance that you will get the heart.

b. If you die in an auto accident, you will be buried with your heart in your body. In addition, if you are ever in need of a heart transplant, there will be a 45 percent chance that you will get the heart.

They asked the study participants which of these options they’d prefer. Most people choose “a” as the benefit of the trade-off is quite clear. Yet government policy, yielding to what psychologists term “omissions bias”– which is the “irrational preference for harms of omission over harms of action”–follows an organ donation program that favors “b.”

This is a striking result that clearly supports a change in policy: We need to switch to a ‘default’ system that functions as follows: Unless you specify that you do not want to donate your organs, you become a viable donor at death. By this simple shift in policy, organ donations would rise substantially.
A free collection of articles on transplants can be found at this website.

Education is Changing

By AJ Kelton
Education is changing. The days filled with students facing front, teachers doing all the talking, and books and pencils the only tools of the educational process are not just now starting to decline, they are well into decline. Find the most talented teacher, K-12 or higher education, and ask if s/he only lectures to students or tries to engage them. Certainly issues of crumbling buildings and poor infrastructure need to be addressed, but we cannot overlook technology, existing and emerging, as an equal player at the table.

Many of us did not have computers when we were in high school, let alone 1st grade. The world is a dramatically different place now and we make note of this all the time. When was the last time you turned to another adult and said, “These kids are so much smarter than we were”? They are. And they want to learn. But they do not want to learn the way you and I did; they want, and need, to learn differently.

Our students today are going to be the ones who have to figure out how to get us all out of the messes we have created. In order to help them we need to invest in technology infrastructure for our educational facilities, libraries, and homes. We need to find and encourage use of the hands-on technology that will let these brilliant minds develop and grow.

New construction must be designed with a technology infrastructure that is given equal and important consideration at the earliest stages of planning. All too often, technology is tossed in at the end, once all the plans are already in motion. Everything, from network traffic to electrical supply and jack availability to standard computer hardware, needs to be planned and budgeted for at the onset and with the same maintenance considerations as other essential infrastructure.

What applications our students will be using on our networks is a completely different animal. The world of technology changes quickly. Who would have thought a few short years ago that we would be looking at mobile technology and virtual worlds as a raising tide that lifts all technology boats?

From the days of Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Star Trek, future inhabitants have been walking around with access to technology at their fingertips. One only need look at Apple’s iPhone to see a modern-day Communicator and Tricorder wrapped up in one. The idea that mobile technology would drive the marketplace so heavily was a distant thought not all that long ago. In the meantime, today we all iPhone and Blackberry our way through our workday, while students begin to do the same through their school workday.

So when you hear that virtual worlds are a growing market in the educational industry and have begun to provide exceptional learning experiences for students from many age ranges and from around the world, don’t wonder where your flying car is. We were all promised flying cars by the 21st-century, right?

Well, in virtual worlds, such as the very popular Second Life, we can have flying cars. But virtual environments are so much more than a frivolous place where “games” are played. Educators from all over the globe are finding amazing ways to engage students using a combination of the virtual and non-virtual worlds. Whether it’s a replica of a working heart one can walk through, a recreation of the Sistine Chapel, or a tour through a psychiatric ward hearing and seeing what a schizophrenic patient experiences, virtual worlds seem to be limited only by one’s imagination.

Although not the only virtual world being used for educational purposes, Second Life is currently the most widely used by a large margin. According to its main web page,, “Second Life is an online, 3D virtual world imagined and created by its Residents.” After signing up for a free membership (paid memberships with a few benefits are available but not required), and downloading the application to a computer, one creates an “avatar”, or 3D representation of oneself. The ability to customize the avatar in more ways than one can imagine is something that has attracted so many people to this virtual world.

Aside from flying cars, or even flying without cars, avatars can communicate with others, visit virtual places all designed and created by other “residents”, hold meetings, go to musical and artists performances, and even engage in micro transactions between individuals.

Second Life first became available to the public in 2003. On average, ten to fifteen thousand new avatars (accounts) are created each day and fifty thousand unique individuals are signed in to the Second Life grid at any given time, with a peak number recently exceeding seventy thousand. Over one million U.S. dollars are transacted each day in the Second Life economy. Although educational use makes up a small but growing percentage of the Second Life user base, there are well over three hundred self-identified educational institutions internationally with some kind of involvement in Second Life.

Second Life is designed specifically for adults, defined as those eighteen years old and older. This does not mean that those under eighteen are left out in the cold by the folks at Linden Lab, creators of Second Life. A few years back Linden Lab created Teen Second Life, a very carefully controlled and protected environment for those between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. A small number of middle and high schools in the U.S. have invested in creating a secure, school-only location for their students. An example of one assignment comes from the Suffern Middle School in the Ramapo School District. Students were asked to change their avatar’s appearance to reflect first on how they see themselves and then how they think society sees the idealized appearance of the gender they selected. This allowed for a rich and exciting discussion on how advertising and society impact not just what we do but even how we choose to look.

Aside from the educational uses of virtual worlds, there are practical design and architectural uses as well. Virtual environments have become an exceptional place to create, in advance, a planned non-virtual world space and allow users to experience it beyond the single dimension of drawings and blueprints. Imagine being able to build a technology-rich classroom, an innovatively designed library, a planned renovation of a current space or even a new construction, and then letting visitors, via an avatar experience that space. This is not the stuff that wild imaginations are dreaming of. This is happening in real time, right now.

At this point you may be scratching your head and thinking “Is this for real?” or “Where did this come from and how did I miss it?” The fact is that these types of environments have been around for decades. Educators, geeks, and kids have been using multi-user environments for as long as networks have allowed text to flow back and forth. More recently, while some have gotten into the fantasy role-playing environment of World of Warcraft, others have sat with their children and marveled as they engaged with their non-virtual and virtual Webkinz companion. If you are not sure what Webkinz is, ask almost anyone who has a young child or grandchild.

Whether its Webkinz by Ganz, Club Barbie by Mattel, or any of the many Disney virtual worlds our children are playing in these days, those same children are going to eventually bring this expectation for interactive and engaging learning environments to our schools. Trends in virtual worlds, as charted by companies like Virtual Worlds Management, show clear evidence that this is not a passing fad. Some folks at Princeton, Rutgers, Seton Hall, Kean, and Montclair State have also seen the handwriting on the virtual wall and have begun to experiment with learning and teaching in the virtual environment of Second Life. At Montclair State University, for example, a wide variety of subjects have used Second Life as a learning and teaching tool, including: Composition, Counseling, History, Law, Literacy, Literature, Media, and the New Student Experience. Even the Residence Life division has begun to experiment with using Second Life to reach a variety of students.

From a few visits to experience something not possible in the non-virtual world, to using the virtual environment to enhance distance and online learning, we are looking at the beginnings of a whole new world; a virtual one at the very least. The question becomes, who will be left wondering why or how some other college, school, library, or organization got the jump on this?

AJ Kelton is the Director of Emerging Instructional Technology for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as the Second Life Project Coordinator for the College of Education and Human Services, both at Montclair State University. Mr. Kelton is the author of the recent article “Virtual Worlds? ‘Outlook Good’”, published by the EDUCAUSE Review and he is the owner of AFK Consulting, a company dedicated to providing services in support of virtual worlds, social media and networking, and Web 2.0 initiatives.

Trying To Remember What Causes Brain Damage: This is Your Brain on Poverty

By Jarrett Chapin

If we suppose that intellectual aptitude is the result of teaching, we may be partially wrong. Likewise, if we believe that economics and socio-environmental conditions are responsible for quantifiable intellect then we might only be somewhat right. Such are the implications of various bits of research that, over the past decade, has suggested that socioeconomic status (SES) bears considerably on the ability of children growing up in low (LSES) or high (HSES) socioeconomic environments. Although cognitive science and public fiscal policy may seem to have only tentative links at times, in education they dovetail splendidly.

You may prefer, for instance, that former account of aptitude, “aptitude is the result of teaching,” you might understand “reform” to be a function of staffing or certification. It would follow then that the dysfunction in our American schools can be solved by either reforming the process of certification for teachers, devising ways of ferreting out poor educators in our school system with a system of performance-based pay incentives and deprivations, or the reallocation of good teachers who tend to migrate to suburban middleclass schools.

On the other hand, if you, a social critic, prefer the idea “that economics and socio- environmental conditions are responsible for quantifiable intellect” then one favors reforms like after school programs, Head Start, welfare assistance, and environmental improvement i.e., school construction and community rehabilitation.

On both accounts, according to a growing population of researchers in various fields, we may be wrong. Not completely wrong, but wrong nonetheless. And being incorrect in our assumptions, in this case, would mean spending on facets of education reform which bear little effect on the real education problems of LSES children. Correct spending suggests targeting areas in the sphere of education that are usually understood to be outliers or ancillary elements.

Researchers from Cornell University, Gary Evans and Michelle Shamberg, and in another study Mark Kishiyama and associates from the University of California, Berkeley, have suggested that it is not simply poverty but the consequent stress indicative of poverty that diminishes the aptitude of LSES children. They suggest that the education problems of LSES children are neurological as much as they are environmental. Both the Berkeley and Cornell studies build upon the work of Martha J. Farah and associates at the University of Pennsylvania who seem to have been the first to transpose SES onto neurophysiology to make this argument. In 2005, Dr. Farah, joined by Kimberly G. Noble and Hallam Hurt produced a study, one of several authored by Farah, that seeks to change the way we think about the performance of students and the solutions on which we are willing to spend money.

The first stage of the University of Pennsylvania study was an attempt to describe and account for lower neurocognitive performance between 30 LSES and 30 middle SES (MSES) public school kindergarteners. Designed to “assess the functioning of five key neurocognitive systems” such as spatial and visual cognition, cognitive control, language, and memory, the Berkeley researchers found that MSES children scored a standard deviation higher than LSES children in language tests and two-thirds of a standard deviation higher for “executive function” mentioned before as “cognitive control.” In most of the tests, spatial and visual results became irrelevant.

It is interesting that test scores are interpreted neurophysiologically, i.e., a test of “Language” becomes a test of the “left perisylvian cortical region” just as a test of working memory becomes a test of the “prefrontal cortex.”[1] On this note, the original test of memory was a test of the medial temporal cortical region, a region where the hippocampus is located, the hippocampus being responsible for the creation of long term memories.

To support the assumption about the socioenvironmental effect of stress hormones on brain anatomy and function, the researchers cite a laboratory experiment in which rat pups are separated from their rat mothers. The separation, it seems, adds rodent sized emphasis to the theory that stress can cause brain damage. The separation of rat pups from their mothers, according to researchers Meany, Diorno, and Francis, was found to have altered both anatomy and function in their rat brains and had a particular effect on “the medial temporal area needed for memory, although prefrontal systems involved in the regulation of the stress response are also impacted.”[2] Farah, Noble, and Hurt suppose that, similarly, living in low socioeconomic environments produces the kind of stress which, as did the stress of separation experienced by rats in the experiment above mentioned, damages human brains. Such stressful stimuli, according to the researchers, might include: “concern about providing for basic family needs, dangerous neighborhoods, and little control over one’s work life.”[3]

The research leads us to adopt a theory that high stress in LSES environments produces greater amounts of stress hormones like cortisol, a secretion from the adrenal gland that affects blood pressure and insulin levels, and catecholamine, also an adrenal secretion responsible for preparing the body for the “fight-or-flight” response. Stress hormones in large amounts are thought to cause a deregulation of blood pressure and the immune system but also to the prefrontal cortex and the medial cortex which contains hippocampus, the organ responsible for the creation of long term memories. The University of Pennsylvania researchers suppose that the cognitive disparities they found between LSES and MSES children in all three experiments can be accounted for in this way.

Because they preferred this particular interpretive model, one which posits that stress hormones cause brain damage, researchers find evidence of both medial temporal as well as prefrontal damage in their LSES subjects. Having found such evidence, it would have followed—or it would have at least been very suggestive—that something in a LSES subject’s background causes brain damage. However, at the experiment’s conclusion researchers did not find the evidence they anticipated. Instead, they found that LSES subjects differed little from MSES subjects in all but two categories, language (left perisylvian cortical region), and executive function or cognitive control, (prefrontal cortex).

Having found no memory deficiency with regard to the medial temporal region, researchers seem to have decided instead to mine memory from the prefrontal cortex whereon LSES subjects scored one-third lower than MSES subjects—not quite as low as LSES scored in language. Prefrontal or executive function was thus split into 3 different categories, cognitive control, reward processing, and most important, working memory. Not surprising, researchers also tried to induce a memory response in the medial temporal lobe (memory) by placing a delay between the stimulus and the response portion of the experiment with the hope that such a delay would give LSES subjects ample time to forget.

Hoping to replicate their findings in the prefrontal and left perisylvian region, researchers conducted two more experiments, one on 150 first graders “of varying ethnicities” and SES backgrounds, and one on of 60 middle school students divided, as were the subjects of the first study, into equal parts LSES and MSES. In both of the latter studies, LSES subject’s scores were similar to those in the first round. Researchers thus concluded that it is that stress affects working memory and that, perhaps, is the cause of lowered ability in larger numbers of LSES subjects.

In their account of the correlation of LSES and low achievement, Evans and Schamberg lean heavily on a model developed by researcher Bruce S. McEwen who supposes that stress hormones like cortisol, which may help the body respond and adapt to various environmental stimuli, may also build up under prolonged strain causing long term physical damage in conditions of perpetual stress, just like the rats in the study described by the University of Pennsylvania study.[4] McEwen calls the effects of perpetual or “chronic stress,” “allostatic load” which can be described as a weakening of health marked by a prolonged secretion of survival hormones. Hormones or “physiological mediators,” like emergency switches or rocket packs for movie heroes, allow humans to adapt to new conditions and rise to challenges that are taxing to our bodies and minds. Cortisol, for instance, can provide a burst of energy in a dangerous moment or make you intellectually sharper when you are confronted with an emergent problem. In high doses, cortisol can overtax the body and cause effects like cognitive impairment and obesity. Wrote McEwan in 2000, “Both cortisol and catecholamines are mediators of the adaptation of many systems of the body to acute challenges, while, at the same time, these mediators also participate in pathological changes over long periods of time ranging from immunosuppression to obesity, hypertension, and atherosclerosis.”

Based upon McEwan’s account, Evans and Schamberg suppose that the frequency of accumulated stress varies by the duration of childhood poverty which in turn can be correlated positively with lowered working memory capacity in adult life. This thesis, combined with an examination of longitudinal data derived from a study of 195 white young adults, led the researchers to suggest that the working memory of an adult from a LSES background is quantifiably affected by stress. Evans and Schamberg conclude that, “on average, poor adults raised in middle-income families could hold in working memory a sequence of 9.44 items, whereas poor adults who grew up in poverty had a working memory capacity of 8.50 items.”[5]

The researchers do entertain the possibility that their findings might be indicative of a reversed situation wherein decreased memory ability is what causes the prolonged stress or allostatic load “poverty–>working memory–>allostatic load,” rather than poverty–>allostatic load–>working memory. They entertain this idea, but not for long as they insist that the inferential links between allostatic load and working memory are very suggestive of the former causal chain, that the stress of poverty causes lowered working memory. Further, the researchers add, “the relationship between duration of childhood poverty and allostatic load was not attenuated when working memory was partialed from the equation.” Said simply, if lowered working memory, rather than poverty, was indeed the cause of stress observed in the data, then the elimination of working memory, in particular places of the sample, should have removed instances of allostatic load. It did not.

Mark Kishiyama and his research associates from the University of California, Berkeley, have produced a behavioral experiment for which 26 children from LSES and HSES backgrounds were fitted with electrodes and asked to perform various cognitive feats. Taking also the University of Pennsylvania study as a research benchmark, the Berkeley researchers used Electroencephalography (EEG) equipment in an attempt to find behavioral data to support the poverty-neurocognition correlation and to confine the problem, as did the prior pair of researchers, to the prefrontal cortex.[6] Though researchers admit the limitations of a largely behavioral test, the study is an advance over prior studies because it uses brain imaging to show more concretely what other experimenters only supposed by projecting onto human brains, the theories of other researchers derived from the brains of rats. That is, imaging actually showed on video monitors, the degree of prefrontal activity of each subject.

On the 5 tests issued, HSES subjects scored significantly higher than LSES subjects who, for the most part, scored within the predetermined mean. LSES subjects, in other words, performed many of the tasks with average or near average aptitude. For instance, on a test which required subjects to count forward and then in reverse as means of testing their working memory, “digit span,” HSES children scored higher than 1 standard deviation over the predetermined mean. LSES subjects achieved mean scores on the low end. Another test of working memory included a verbal component, “semantic fluency,” a test in which subjects were required produce all the words they could conjure in order to satisfy a cue from proctors, i.e., the names of animals, food, or words that begin with “sh.” HSES subjects excelled in the semantic fluency test, but seem to glow brightest in the area of language overall. In a general “language” test, subjects were asked simply to define words. HSES children scored as high as 2 standard deviations above the mean; LSES children scored 1 standard deviation below.

The tests may have shown HSES children to be semi-savants when it comes to counting backwards and forwards, though in regard to the poverty-neurocognition correlation, the experiment failed to prove that LSES subjects had their prefrontal cortices wounded by their SES. Their scores were average but not indicative of brain damage and the only thing that seems to wound them was the comparison to HSES children.

Of course the researchers insist that their experiment on 26 children drawn only from the Bay Area confirms that SES bears neurophysiologically on the prefrontal function in the brains of children. However, these researchers do not seem to have transcended a theory built upon observations of rat pups. They note themselves that behavioral tests can only prove so much about the neurological operations as “they provide only indirect measures of brain function.” And, as the authors also note, they have not completely isolated the observed effects to “prefrontal dysfunction.” In a sense, they are no closer to proving the poverty-neurocognition correlation than the University of Pennsylvania researchers who preceded them.

If the Berkeley study demonstrated anything convincingly it was that HSES children excel in language, an ability attributed to the left perisylvian cortical region which Farah, Noble, and Hurt in their earlier work found to be predicted by “cognitive stimulation,” otherwise known as conversation. The latter note that their research suggests cognitive stimulation “was the sole factor identified as predicting language ability […] along with the child’s gender and the mother’s I.Q..” Not really so different from the contrasting account of medial temporal, or memory ability which was attributed to “average social/emotional nurturance,” otherwise known as a lack of stress. However, we must doubt that a lack of conversation causes neurophysiological brain damage in the way that researchers assume stress hormones cause a deformation of the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe. Evidence that HSES children excel in language ability is not surprising. What is surprising is that the Berkeley researchers would use their test of “semantic fluency” which pairs working memory with language in order to demonstrate something about working memory.

Various studies, including the first study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania researchers and that just mentioned, bear out the idea that HSES children have greater language ability than LSES. The second study conducted by Evans and Schamberg did not test subjects for language aptitude but did seem to suggest that, as did the Berkeley researchers, working memory/the prefrontal cortex is somehow morphologically bound up with language/the left perisylvian cortical region: “working memory is essential to language comprehension, reading, and problem solving, and it is a critical prerequisite for long-term storage of information.” In all of the studies beginning with the first conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, an attempt has been made to prove the existence of both prefrontal and medial temporal impairment in a sample of LSES subjects. The existence of both would justify the use of the stress hormone interpretive model discussed in the first study and called allostatic load in the second. Rather than justifying the use of the stress hormone model, however, each study has tried to attach working memory in some way to language aptitude which was found in two of the three studies to be consistently high in HSES and comparatively low in LSES subjects. Contrary to the hopeful conclusions of each study, it would seem that language aptitude is the only thing damaged by poverty.

In the past couple of years, the Educational Testing Service has released a report called “The Family: America’s Smallest School.” In the 2007 report, authors note that by the age of four, “the average child in a professional family hears about 20 million more words than children in working-class families hear, and about 35 million more than the children in welfare families hear.”[7] Also, similar to the findings of the researchers mentioned above, ETS reports that “at the highest SES quartile, 62 percent of parents reported reading to their children every day, compared to only 36 percent of parents at the lowest SES quartile.” ETS reports the findings of Child Trends, an organization that, according to ETS, gathered information from 7 research papers, reports, and books spanning the work of 19 researchers to conclude that “by the age of two, children who are read to regularly display greater language comprehension, larger vocabularies and higher cognitive skills than their peers […] In addition, being read to aids in the socioemotional development of young children.”

The famous 17th century political thinker Thomas Hobbes once supposed, unscientifically, that the function of language was the conversion of our mental discourse into verbal discourse. Having no language, he inferred, we would have no way of indexing our thoughts and therefore no capacity for memory. We can say this in another way: memory is a function of verbal ability. Perhaps there’s something to this 400-year-old conjecture. In order to raise language ability or, in the idiom of the neurophysiologists, to decrease brain damage to the left perisylvian cortical region, ETS suggests that parents equip homes with reading material and a quiet place to study such as a desk. They also recommend reading to children which, as it is said to aid the “socioemotional development” of children, may also reduce some of the damage to the prefrontal cortex that was found to be typical of the LSES subjects in all three studies.

The social critics were right after all. If a LSES environment/family is poor in substance then we must give these children substitute environments and caretakers. In the absence of parents who are not willing or able to read to their own children, Head Start type intervention and after school counselor surrogates may do a lot of good for LSES children. Some other solutions such as diverting pay and benefits from teachers and administrators toward the improvement of urban essential infrastructure such as convenience stores, libraries, police departments, and transportation, raising minimum wage, and creating more jobs for LSES families may also decrease some of the neurophysiological strain of poverty. That, perhaps, is a no brainer.


[1] Farah, M. J., Noble, K. G. & Hurt, H. Poverty, privilege and brain development: Empirical findings and

ethical implications. In J. Illes (Ed.),. (2005). Neuroethics in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Meaney, M. J., Diorio, J., Francis, D., & al, e. Early environmental regulation of forebrain glucocoricoid receptor gene expression: implications for adrenocortical responses to stress. Developmental Neuroscience. (1996). 18, 49-72: in Farah, Martha, Poverty, Privilege, And Brain…

[3] iBid of 1

[4] McEwen BS. Allostasis and allostatic load: Implications for neuropsychopharmacology. Neuropsychopharmacology. (2000). 22: 108–124: “altered states of brain chemistry and function make the afflicted individual more susceptible to the physiological impact of life events and, in turn, more vulnerable to the impact of the stress hormones themselves. Furthermore, these considerations of stress and health are becoming useful in understanding gradients of health across the full range of education and income, referred to as “socioeconomic status” or SES” (2).

[5] Gary W. Evans, G. W. & Schamberg, M. A. Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. PNAS (2009) 106: 6545-6549.

[6] Kishiyama, M. M. et al. Socioeconomic disparities affect prefrontal function in children. J. Cogn. Neurosci. ( 2009). 21, 6: 1106-111.

[7] Barton, P., & Coley, R. America’s smallest school: The family. Policy Information Report, Policy Information Center, Educational Testing Services. (2007).

Technology and the Changing Face of Political Campaigns

By Richard A. Lee

Ever since the Clinton-Gore campaign used a primitive version of the internet to keep in contact with staff members in 1992, it seems that every successive election gets labeled as a “net election” that will change the nature of politicking. Last year’s presidential campaign did more than merely continue this pattern. The Obama campaign used technology so creatively and effectively that it may have permanently altered the dynamics of politics in America, and possibly internationally.
It is unlikely that New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial election will have as dramatic an impact on the future of campaigning, but there have been significant developments in technology over the past four years that may influence strategy and change some of the dynamics from what they were the last time we elected a governor. When Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester squared off against each other in 2005, YouTube was in its infancy, the only people on Facebook were students, and Twitter didn’t even exist. This year, all three are essential tools being utilized by candidates all over the nation.
But not only do YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of new media provide another means of conveying news and information about a candidate, they also offer campaigns the ability to bypass the media and communicate directly to voters. Citizens no longer need to rely on newspapers, radio and television to gather and deliver information about the candidates and their platforms. On one hand, this makes political information more readily accessible than ever. But on the other hand, the information often bypasses the gatekeepers of traditional journalism, whose role it is to scrutinize, challenge and verify information before it is provided to the public. Instead, campaigns can now post their press releases, photos and videos online and email them directly to voters. Whether reporters show up to cover a press conference may have far less consequence today since campaigns can record the conferences and send video clips to their contact lists – and probably target the clips for different audiences to achieve maximum impact.
The implications of this trend are significant. If voters rely more heavily on unfiltered information from campaigns (as they may, due to the popularity of the internet as an information source and the downturn in the media industry which has limited the content and quality of many news organizations), they are unlikely to obtain the objective, factual information required to make informed choices in the voting booth.
So what does all of this mean for New Jersey and this year’s campaign for governor?
It means more responsibility for all of us. We have more sources for news and information than ever, but no one is going to sort out the good, the bad and the ugly for us. To make intelligent, informed decisions, we need to become intelligent, informed media consumers. That means obtaining as much information as possible – from as many different and divergent sources as possible – before making up our mind on an issue or a candidate. Think about it. We all go through a process like this when we buy a house, a car or a computer. Surely, we should do the same when it comes time to select our next governor.

Update: Swine Flu in New Jersey

Since the Middle Ages, the great plagues have frightened us. We see the loss of large segments to something that is invisible to the naked eye, and some how linked up to animals and diseased carriers. Our responses are really often the same: fresh air, isolation, and prayer. So it was with the bird flu, with AIDS, and now with swine flu, except now we are more international, more porous, and thus more vulnerable.

The Hall Institute prints here the CDC link which is probably the very best information and the most current that we possess. The address is: