Friday, November 15, 2013

Of mice and humans

A couple of new neuroscientific studies were presented the other day at a press conference. On the basis of animal models, they were said to “reveal links between social status and specific brain structures and activity, particularly in the context of social stress.” One such study found that “adult rats living in disrupted environments produce fewer new brain cells than rats in stable societies, supporting theories that unstable conditions impair mental health and cognition.” On reading this, my first thought, of course, was: “Hmm, how would this finding about lab rats apply to a human society organized around a winner-takes-most rat race?”
Did the neuroscientists who conducted this study think about these larger social implications? Yes and no. Larry Young, the “expert in brain functions involved with social behavior who moderated the press conference, did note that “social subordination and social instability have been associated with an increased incidence of mental illness in humans.” And he also mentioned that in addition to working on new treatments for such maladies, the new information “also calls on us to evaluate how we construct social hierarchies and their impacts on human well-being.” The hierarchies he had in mind, though, were limited to the micro level – “whether in the workplace or school.” Speculating about larger social implications apparently does not mesh well with the nerdy focus needed to conduct this kind of research.