2019 Annual Meeting
Chicago, IL, USA
October 17-18

Interview With Martha Farah

The brain and socioeconomic status: how do we apply it to real-world policy? 

Martha J. Farah is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences at the Center for Neuroscience & Society, University of Pennsylvania. She is a cognitive neuroscientist who works on problems at the interface of neuroscience and society. She has degrees in metallurgy and philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University.  Farah will give the Fred Kavli Distinguished Neuroethics Lecture at the 2019 INS Annual Meeting.

Image of Martha Farah

What is your field of research?

My general field of research is cognitive neuroscience — that is, the relation between the mind and the brain. If that makes me sound like a frustrated philosopher, it's probably because I am! I am fascinated by philosophical problems like what a mind is, how we develop into such different individuals, how we come to believe things, and what makes a person the same person over time despite the many changes we all undergo. But I am also an experimentalist at heart, so I decided to work on the science of these topics.

My recent research has focused on socioeconomic status (SES) and brain development. SES is a ubiquitous feature of human societies. Everywhere there are people who are better off and people who are worse off in terms of resources, power, prestige, etc. These differences matter; SES is linked to the way we think and solve problems and to our well-being and mental health. But until recently, there was not much of an effort made to understand how and why SES is linked to the brain. Which is weird, because thinking and mental health are functions of the brain!

What will your lecture cover?

I will be talking about the relevance of SES neuroscience to policy. It seems natural to expect science to inform policy — after all, once we understand the pathways through which socioeconomic disadvantage is linked to diminished capabilities and diminished well-being, we should have better targets for interventions on societies, communities and individuals. Then again, the science itself is very young and incomplete. So we have to ask: what do we know so far, and is any of it yet applicable to real-world policy? That's what I'll be covering, in a nutshell.

What are the key neuroethical issues in translating science to policy [in context with socioeconomic status and brain development]?

There are many ethical issues involved in translating this work into policy. One obvious one is that the premature application of scientific ideas that are not firmly grounded in evidence can be a waste of time and resources, or worse, harmful to the people we want to help.

In addition, there are subtler issues to consider, about where to place blame for the ills of poverty. If our explanations of lowered IQs and raised rates of depression involve the brains of affected individuals, are we in some sense blaming these individuals for their own suffering? Do neuroscience explanations divert attention from societal injustices that operate upstream of individual brains?

What got you interested in neuroethics, and what is its significance in the 'real world'?

I think I have always been interested in neuroethics, even before I knew the word! Earlier in my career, my only dissatisfaction with my chosen field of cognitive neuroscience was that it seemed a bit 'ivory tower.' It bothered me that the beautiful science taking place in the late 20th century on mind and brain seemed so unable to contribute to solving social problems. Happily, as cognitive neuroscience has advanced, it has become applicable to all kinds of problems, from the law to education to psychiatry. And once the field has the capability to impact human life, ethical issues arise.

What was your role in the early days of the INS?

I was part of small group of early neuroethics enthusiasts who looked around and saw the emerging role of neuroscience in society, and I wanted to convene fellow scientists and scholars to think seriously about the ethical issues. The plan succeeded wonderfully! The INS has spread awareness of ethical issues in neuroscience and catalyzed great discussion and collaboration around the world!


Mapping Neuroethics: An Expanded Vision

The 2019 Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) will gather a diverse group of scholars, scientists, clinicians, and professionals dedicated to the responsible use of advances in brain science. Attendees will participate in intellectually stimulating and dynamic sessions that will explore neuroethics in a global context.

Discounted registration rates are available until September 20.

Meeting Program