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Fetal Pain And Neuroscience

This is a piece that I put up on Tumblr last year during the Texas fetal pain legislation. I didn’t know at the time that Tumblr is terrible for blog posts so, as we once again get into the questions of fetal pain due to the impending federal legislation, I thought it would be a good piece to bring to blog form as the discussion renews.

Note: The conversation below is neither a political nor a moral discussion. This is strictly about what nueroscience tells us about the experience of pain and how that sense of pain develops in a fetus.


Back in June 2013, a Texas GOP congressman said something about how fetuses feel pleasure and pain and was roundly mocked. The congressman was a former OB/GYN, so we know he had some experience and training with pre-born infants and I wondered how accurate his statement was.

So I turned to my brother, a published neuroscientist currently going through med school. He actually might object to being called a neuroscientist since he doesn’t have a PhD, but he did years of graduate research exclusively in the field that has resulted in several peer-reviewed publications, so I feel pretty comfortable with the title.

Anyway, I asked him about it and we had a big discussion that I felt really informed my understanding of the topic. I meant to compile it into a blog post, but the mockery faded and so did my interest.

Then Salon decided they wanted to throw on their “It’s science, bitches!” baseball caps and prove that “their side” is using science while “the other side” is using nonsensical pseudoscience for dummies.

This is a thing I’ve noticed too many people like to do: Simplify the science to a point where they are conveying no valuable information or understanding (check), find a technical voice willing to confirm their bias (in this case, a second-trimester abortion provider who, I’m sure, has no dog in this fight), and generally act like second graders who found that the science textbook phrased something in such a way that they can titter to themselves and feel intellectual about their ignorance.

It’s juvenile, it’s arrogant, and people deserve to understand the complexities of the matter a little better. Journalism is supposed to do this. Actually… decent, intellectually curious human beings are supposed to do this, whether or not they work in journalism. But journalists are supposed to get paid for it and they have failed miserably to present the science here, instead giving us a pre-baked conclusion backed up by an abortion provider while yelling “SCIENCE”.

So here is my discussion with an actual neuroscientist who actually wants people to understand things that matter. Keep in mind, this discussion stems from the original congressman’s statement, not from the Salon piece.

Me: You know something about embryology, is the congressman’s statement here about fetal pleasure correct?

Bro: It’s highly inaccurate. It’s straight up wrong because of his definitions.

Me: Inform me.

Bro: Let’s back up a bit and define our terms, the words “feel,” “pleasure,” and “pain”.

“Feel” can be simply mean a response to environmental stimuli not necessarily requiring a level of processing indicative of intelligent life. For example you poke microorganisms and they can recoil because they don’t like getting poked. It “felt” that poke.

“Pain” suggests a different and higher level of processing capable of suffering in response to environmental stimuli. This is a much more complex neurological process and also much harder to cleanly define.

Me: OK. For context, the political argument on the right regarding abortion (at the moment) is “a fetus of a certain gestational age can feel pain”. So what would you suggest is a good benchmark for measuring pain (in the sense that humans or higher level organisms experience it)?

Bro: That gets way trickier. Again, our terms aren’t clearly defined in a way that I, as a scientist, can really give a “yes” or “no” answer. I don’t know whether you mean “at what point do we know something is feeling pain?” or “What level of processing is required to feel pain?” or even “What level of neurological pain processing is close enough to what we call ‘suffering’ that it would matter from a moral point of view?” 

Keep in mind that while “pain” and “response to stimuli” are commonly grouped together, they are not necessarily bound together. You can feel pain but be unable to respond to it. For example, there are cases of anesthesia awareness where a patient is fully non-responsive but also fully conscious and capable of pain. In a situation like that, the only way we know pain happened is because the patient reported it after the fact. So a lack of response to stimuli is no guarantee of a lack of pain. (for more on anesthesia awareness: )

If I were making a pro-life argument, I would take a similar stance as the guy in the article, although I would absolutely not use the word pleasure. Pleasure comes from a far more complex form of brain processing than pain. Take that statement out of the discussion completely.

The main issue (it seems) is that at some point a developing human is capable of processing pain. There is no difference in terms of brain processing 2 minutes before a child is born and 2 minutes after. The question then becomes when is the fetus (or pre-born infant or whatever we’re using these days) capable of processing pain. The answer is that we don’t really know. But here are the neurological boundaries for the discussion that might give us some groundwork for trying to answer that question.

Me: Hooray for philosophy.

Bro: By the way, I know this is from a neuro heavy perspective of embryology… but that’s what I got.

First, there’s response to stimuli. A fetus responds to stimuli around 15-20 weeks. We could imagine how we would feel in response to the stimuli so we might transpose our imagined experience to that of the fetus. If they respond in the same way we think we would respond, we think they feel the same way.

That’s as a result of things called “mirror neurons” that help us to enjoy watching football games cause we can imagine ourselves catch the football. It improves things like empathy/sympathy. But just because a goldfish recoils from being poked with a sharp object doesn’t mean that it processes that poking in such a way that it leaves emotional scarring for years to come. We might be emotionally scarred, but the goldfish won’t be. It feels, i.e. responds, but it doesn’t process.

Second, there’s pain. This means that it responds to *and* processes pain stimuli in a way that we do, but that doesn’t mean that it processes the experience of pain. By that I mean that we have higher processing capable of recalling, discussing, analyzing, philosophizing, considering (etc.) experiences. We can do that but a frog wouldn’t do that.

Third is the mental recall and analysis of pain. We might try to rescue someone who is in pain, because we know how pain feels and it sucks and you empathize with someone and we don’t want them to experience it. We see pain, recognize it, empathize, and respond. We’re processing the experience of pain in a recollective and complex fashion.

So that’s 3. 1. Feeling, 2. Processing, and 3. Complex processing of pain

Me: So, if I understand correctly, 1 (feeling) isn’t something we would normally care about. And the fetus does that pretty early on. 2 (processing) is something we care more about, but there’s a lot of gray area. Fetuses *probably* have that in the 20ish week range, but it’s hard to say. 3 (complex processing) is something we care deeply about but it’s pretty much impossible to say whether a fetus or even a baby under 1 month has that in a way we would recognize.

Bro: Mostly right. Processing is actually something that might not really be happening until like… a year old. It almost certainly doesn’t happen prior to birth.

With 3 you can definitely suffer. With 2 you can maybe suffer. With 1… well, if suffering occurs with that we might as well not even eat plants.

The pain line of argumentation is useless for someone who wants to focus on conception. If you want to use pain as a moral sticking point and you want to do it grounded in science, you should focus on either the grey area of 15-25 weeks or sometime around like 6 months or a year after birth. Is anyone making the case abortion should be legal at 56 weeks? If they base the right to life on pain processing, they’re going to have to give up on 38 week abortions too. At least if they want to be intellectually coherent and base their argument on science. Is that a big concern on both sides?

Me: Not usually.

Bro: OK. Well, back to the neuroscience. I’m not boring you, am I.

Me: Nope, continue.

Bro: OK, the brain is kind of like computing. A single neural connection doesn’t really mean a whole lot just like if you have one transistor that doesn’t really do a whole lot. Neurons are building blocks. When you have 100 billion, then you can build something pretty awesome. But it’s hard to attribute meaning to individual neurons.

The brain is divided by function into gyruses and sulci. Gyruses are the ridges and sulci are the folds or wrinkles. Different gyruses have different functions.

Fetuses younger than 24 weeks have almost no gyruses. Fetuses older than 35 weeks have virtually all their gyruses. The prefrontal cortex is what controls the executive function, where the mirror neurons are found, that lets us sympathize, empathize, philosophize, understand society. That’s the last to develop. We’ve got the largest pre-frontal cortex, monkeys have a good sized one and on down the evolutionary chain. Most mammals have one, while invertebrates don’t

The neurons located in a gyrus have the function that we expect it to have, so when the pre-central gyrus first forms, there we can find the motor neurons that control voluntary movement. Before the brain folds to make that ridge, there might be some of those neurons and the infant can move a little bit, but once it folds then where the neurons are ceases to be gray area where that gray matter is (or if it is present).

We can say “There’s the precentral gyrus! Well, he’s definitely processing muscle movement and that’s where it’s happening.” But the gyrus is a folding to making space for neurons that are multiplying in order to make room for them, not a magic appearing of neurons for the first time. So the folding is happening at 5 months, but the infant can start purposeful movement at 18 weeks (or right around 4 months).

Does that all help?

Me: I think so. From a medical/neurological stand point there are a couple key “dates” that we could use to determine what might be a helpful guideline for the “pain” discussion. If we want to say that newborns are people, we would have to track that concept back to at least 35 weeks.

And then there is a gray area back to about 24 weeks and then another one back to about 18 weeks based on neurological development and “what it means” in terms of pain processing.

Bro: That’s about right. 18 weeks, 24-25 weeks, 35 weeks (which is before birth, but not by a lot), and then the next major milestone to be months after birth. Those are estimates because some fetuses can be 1-2 weeks ahead or behind schedule. So if we’re going to track back to 24 weeks, we probably need to back up another 2 to cover the range of fetal development.

So to sum up, the fetus can respond to stimuli at like 8-9 weeks (recoil and movement originating in the spinal cord), it can’t process responses until 18 weeks (purposive movement originating from brain), 24-25 weeks you’ve got significant differentiation going on, and by 35 weeks we can actually identify the part of the brain where experiences are processed. We’re talking not just stimuli, but actual complex and higher thinking.

That’s why calling it “pleasure” or “pain” at 15 weeks is a little bit misleading, because the processing of the stimuli for the fetus at 15 weeks is very very different from how we would understand pleasure or pain. The neural processing might be closer to the response a fish would have to being poked. It would swim away.

Please keep in mind, it’s not a scientists job to make moral decisions. It’s our job to figure out how something works, not to say what it means.

I could say that the neural processing of a grown pig or a cow is capable of the same degree of executive functioning as an infant of say… 6 months, but that doesn’t mean we should stop eating meat or that we should start eating babies. A good scientist will not say “This is what happens, so therefore we have a moral imperative to do that.” He or she will merely describe the phenomena as it is observed. So don’t interpret this to mean “there is no moral issue with a 14 week abortion because they don’t process pain” or “we have a greater moral obligation to a 3 year old monkey than to a newborn infant because the monkey processes pain in a more complex way”. Pain is obviously only one component of the moral discussion here.

This Is How We Disappear

(Skip to point 5 for my personal post-mortem on the Romney campaign)

I haven’t posted in 6 months and my Twitter presence (where I’ve usually done most of my interaction) has slowed to a crawl. I missed the last #BLSFriday (my monthly data-dig into the BLS employment data) and I haven’t made a decent chart in ages. Several people have asked what happened and I hate to just disappear without any explanation, so I wanted to put something up here.

I love being able to make a contribution to the political discussion. I love digging into data and asking questions that too much of the data community prefers to ignore. I love the people I’ve met and become friends with and my chances to speak and educate. But for a variety of reasons, I’ve had to pull back. I don’t like to just disappear and leave people in the dark (we miss you @Cubachi!) so I wanted to elaborate here.

1) I moved to the west coast

I didn’t think it would make a big difference, but moving into a time zone just 1 hour further from DC has really limited my Twitter engagement. By the time I get on at night, a lot of east-coast people I like to interact with have called it a night. I still try to check in frequently (and @stephenkruiser and @politicsofamy make the evenings pretty awesome) but it’s not the same interactions that I loved.

2) My new job requires my personality

Some of you know what my new job is, but for people who don’t, I’ll just say that it requires my personality. Whereas all my previous work relied on my ability to deliver a good product, this job requires that I put my face on my work in a big way. I’ve never been super-secret about my identity, but the nature of my new job requires that I keep my name and personality squarely in the professional sphere.

3) Baby + 2 year old

We just had our 2nd kid and our 2 year old is a delightful little time suck. As much as I love digging into data, building charts, making videos and arguing with the internet, I like spending time with my kids more.

4) This is a hobby

My political data work was fun, educational, engaging, and some of the best stuff I’ve ever made. I have gotten job offers by the dozen. But I have a career in which I make money. It’s not a huge amount of money but… well, let’s just say this conversation actually happened (although it is paraphrased):

Fox News: “Hi, this is (so and so) with Fox News. We’ve seen your stuff and we love it. What do you think about doing a regular piece for (show X).”

Me: Sound great. So… compensation… I was thinking [2/3 my going rate as a programmer].

FN: Yeah, that’s never going to happen. How about [1/6 my going rate as a programmer].

Me: Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. Ha.

I think I actually laughed at them on the phone. The number was really that low.

We tend to think that people in DC make stupid huge money. But that’s true for very few people (usually corporate lobbyists and maybe some organization directors or higher-ups). Bloggers, media content creators, journalists… all these people get paid crap (with the exception of the very top-tier, let’s call them the 1%).

So, if there is a blogger, writer, video creator, podcaster, Twitter personality, etc who you enjoy, donate something to them. Anything is helpful.

5) Disillusionment

OK… now for the real reasons. In the last election, I was approached by someone in the Romney campaign to do some visualization work, charts, videos, that kind of thing. We agreed upon a reasonable rate for my work and I got started working on some concepts. The first visual I produced for the team was a variation of this visual, showing job growth by presidential terms.

The version I made for them was cleaner, better designed, conceptually a bit firmer, but the point was the same. After a number of iterations, I felt I had a great visual that I’d be glad to see be a point of conversation.

And then the approval process began. We spent weeks trying to get an OK on the visual. They asked for references for my data which I gladly included. (The only time I deny references to data is when people on Twitter refuse to do basic research and I want to know they’re willing to do basic research before I engage them.) The approval process for the most basic inoffensive visual showing how mediocre Obama’s jobs record was required the approval of a vast number of message managers, PR managers, researchers, etc. A single veto would kill the iteration and I’d have to resubmit with changes. Sometimes I knew what those changes should be, sometimes I didn’t.

After enough time it dawned on me: These people didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe my numbers (even though they were the most basic BLS numbers out there). I felt (and this is just my intuition talking here) that they had bought, hook line and sinker, the Obama teams “I created X million jobs” line (easily shown to be little more than a flimsy propaganda line based on selective data). I believe they were more willing to swallow the line being promoted by the opposition than a friendly voice with a history of dedication to the truthful portrayal of data.

At a certain point I said “screw this” and gave up.

And I never got paid.

I liked Romney. I voted for Romney (which, incidentally, marked the first time the candidate I voted for didn’t win). There are all sorts of reasons we can point to about why Romney lost. But from my perspective, I saw an over-managed campaign untrustful of their own side and unwilling to take the smallest risks for fear of being butchered by the media. Which, of course, happened anyway.

There’s actually one more reason, but it requires it’s own post. Suffice to say I’d love to keep making data beautiful, engaging the issues, digging into charts and making videos, but my life has changed substantially and for the foreseeable future

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

BlogCon CLT Slide Deck

Yesterday I spoke at BlogConCLT on telling stories around data. I wanted to put the slide deck up, so attendees could go back and relive the dream. I have all the text for the presentation in the notes, so if you prefer, you can just imagine your favorite speaking giving this presentation instead of me.

BlogCon CLT Dramatic Visualizations Presentation (PowerPoint file, 44ish MB)

It is so large because I embedded videos into the presentation. The video I didn’t embed is the one that I used as an example:

Federal Tax Rates & A Fair Share

There has been so much talk recently about millionaires and billionaires not paying their “fair share” of taxes, I decided to look up exactly how much they end up paying. Tim Carney pointed me to this CBO paper on average effective tax rates for 2007 (published in 2010).

This is unfortunately the latest data I can find, but it is useful to me because it gives data that can be extrapolated. If I know the average  pre-tax income, the average after-tax income and the number of people the top 5% and the top 1%, I can extract the top 1% from the top 5% and calculate that data for people in the top 1.1%-5%. This means I can update my Not All Money Is Created Equal chart.

(click to enlarge)

This is a chart of the effective tax rate, so it includes income, payroll, corporate, and excise taxes. It covers all practical sources of income (see the “technical information” at the bottom, since I’m guessing this will be the first objection raised).

I love this chart because I think it summarizes so many important things very easily. We can immediately get the scope of how much the top 1% makes, (it’s a lot) but also easily see that they pay more as a % of the tax burden than they make as a % of the national income. We can see that the US tax system is actually fairly progressive, with the top 20-10% paying the closest to a “fair share” (if by fair you mean every dollar made is taxed at an equal proportion to all income as a whole).

Warren Buffett is an anecdote, but one that has been repeated so often that many people think that the rich, as a whole, don’t pay very much in taxes. This chart shows that this is entirely untrue. When viewed through the lens of effective taxation (which is a very appropriate lens to use) the top 1% of income earners pay a much higher rate on their income than any other income group.

Technical information from the CBO on this data:

Comprehensive household income equals pretax cash income plus income from other sources. Pretax cash income is the sum of wages, salaries, self-employment income, rents, taxable and nontaxable interest, dividends, realized capital gains, cash transfer payments, and retirement benefits plus taxes paid by businesses (corporate income taxes and the employer’s share of Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment insurance payroll taxes) and employees’ contributions to 401(k) retirement plans. Other sources of income include all in-kind benefits (Medicare and Medicaid benefits, employer-paid health insurance premiums, food stamps, school lunches and breakfasts, housing assistance, and energy assistance).

Individual income taxes are allocated directly to households paying those taxes. Social insurance, or payroll, taxes are allocated to households paying those taxes directly or paying them indirectly through their employers. Corporate income taxes are allocated to households according to their share of capital income. Federal excise taxes are allocated to them according to their consumption of the taxed good or service.

March 2012 BLS Employment Data in CSV (Excel) Format

A Table (Employment/Unemployment)

B Tables (Employment By Industry)

BLS Data in Excel Format

If you’ve ever tried to get the data out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) you know that can be kind of a pain in the butt. You usually have to go through the wizards to get the data and then it only gives you one kind of data per table and you have to do a lot of tedious work to get that data into a format that is actually useful for additional work.

I finally got tired of doing this, so this weekend I put together a little program that takes BLS data and turns it into csv format, which can be opened in Excel.

Finally, I would really appreciate two things. First, please mention me (Matthias Shapiro) if you use the data for professional purposes, link back here to let people know where to get it. Second, if this is actually helpful data, please consider tossing $5 or so into my digital hat. I make maybe $50 per year from this blog, so anything to let me know this is worth doing is helpful to me.

Or you could buy a copy of my book Beautiful Visualization (disclaimer: I only wrote one chapter, but I call it “my book” anyway because that makes me feel important).

Download employment status (A Tables) (BLS link)

  • 1948 – Nov 2011
  • civilian population
  • labor force
  • participation rate
  • employed
  • employment-to-population ratio
  • unemployed
  • unemployment rate
  • not in labor force
  • persons who currently want a job
  • 1939-Nov 2011
  • payroll job counts for 150 industries/sub-industries
  • csv file (headers labeled “[state] – [field]” Example: “Alabama – Unemployed”
  • xlsx file (better headers, grouping states)
  • 1976 – Oct 2011
  • labor force by state
  • employed by state
  • unemployed by state
  • unemployment rate by state
Download state payrolls by industry (BLS Link)

Alternate Intro to the “Three Charts” Post

This was my original intro to the “Three Charts” post that I’ve just put up. Normally my rational brain gets the better of me and I delete this kind of crap before I post it. It is neither charitable nor professional. You’ve been warned.

Once again, the truth rolls its eyes and starts tying it’s laces while the lie is half-way around the world. There is a piece called “The Three Charts to E-Mail Your Right Wing Brother-In-Law” that is making the rounds and impressing many people who didn’t score high on the “critical thinking” portion of the test.

Whoever made this chart is an asshole. Straight up asshole. “Your Right Wing Brother-In-Law”? Really? I mean… I get it because no one who is related to this person by blood could ever be so stupid. Nice little undercurrent enforcing the concept of hereditary intelligence. Yeah… I heard a lot of that kind of shit when I visited the deep South and ran into the local racist assholes. Just enough plausible deniability to claim innocence, but deep down you know that, due to your pedigree, you’re just better than other people.

And someone who disagrees with you could never be your friend. I mean… you? Voluntarily associate with someone who doesn’t agree with you? Actually have friends who might challenge you on something? Heaven forbid. Disagreeing with you is something only the lowly and inferior do and you would never be around them of your own volition, so it has to be someone who is “in the family, but not part of the family”.

No, the right wing brother in law just mouths off without knowing the facts, so it is up to the great brainiac hope of the family to inject reality into the conversation. Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just fantasizing about winning an argument in real life without stuttering and turning red in the face?

And as salty icing on the moldy self-righteous cake why do YOU need to explain this to the “brother-in-law” specifically? It it because your wife or sister is too stupid or too meek to explain it to him herself? The weak-minded damsel will be saved by you, the powerful, witty, urbane, strong, righteous intellectual knight. And everyone will love you for being the big savior of the family conversation.

I find that creepy, dismissive and sexist. Everyone who giggles at it and re-shares it should be ashamed of themselves but won’t be because they aren’t introspective enough to stop stroking their own intellectual egos for the time it takes to feel shame.

See? This is why I usually delete that kind of stuff.

I’m Still Catching Up

I want to send out this apology. Policy analysis is not my job… I just do this for fun. That last post was meant to explain things I couldn’t explain over Twitter (to an audience of about 15 people who already discussing it).

Instead, I got almost as many comments and hits as I’ve gotten on everything else I’ve done here over the past 2 years. I’m trying to digest it all, but it’s crunch time at my “normal job”.

Thank you to everyone who has commented and engaged the topic. I am going to try to do a follow-up in the coming week that addresses more of the data.

Tim Carney’s Awesomeness Theory of Capitalism

I saw this when it came out and, as an aspiring entrepreneur, it really resonated with me on how entrepreneurs see the world.

For the people who really drive technology and push the world forward, it isn’t about the money (or, at least, it isn’t only about the money). The drive to “be awesome” is a powerful one… one that inspires a great deal of innovation.

I personally think that one of the great things about the internet isn’t simply access to data or information. It allows groups of people to show off their stuff to other people who care, to people who will think they are awesome. This force drives a huge amount of cool things like space tourism and genetics businesses like 23andMe . It’s also the driving force behind the DIY revolution that Johnny Chung Lee wrote about. For me, getting accolades from people I respect is bigger than a big payday. (In fact, if I somehow got a big payday in the millions of dollars, I’d probably change the trajectory of my career to a higher quotient of awesome-to-profit.)

Anyway, I keep wanting to refer to this clip, so I figured I should put it on my blog.