Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Friday, April 17, 2015

Unconscious Social Engineering

"We've known for so long that poverty and lack of access to resources to enrich the developmental environment are related to poor school performance, poor test scores and fewer educational opportunities. But now we can really tie it to a physical thing in the brain. We realized that this is a big deal."
"It's only been in the past 20 years that we could have done this with living, developing children."
Elizabeth Sowell, neuroscientist, Children's Hospital Los Angeles
Neuroscientists have found the surface area of the cerebral cortex is significantly smaller in low-income children. That part of the brain handles language, memory, spatial skills and reasoning — all important to success in school.
"The thing that really stands out is how powerful the economic influences are on something as fundamental as brain structure. It's just very striking."
"Some people feel if you show these brain differences, you're politically condemning the poor. Which is the opposite, I think, of what we need to do."
"I think we want to understand adversity and minimize adversity."
John Gabrieli, neuroscientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"People who have less ability and marry people with less ability have children who, on balance, on average, have less ability."
"It makes my jaw drop that we've known for years intelligence is inheritable and scientists are beginning to track down exactly how it happens."
James Thompson, psychologist, University College London

Ian Spanier/Cultura RM/Getty Images   A new study finds that children's cognitive skills are linked to family income.

There are no easy answers to multi-dimensional problems that invite study in the hopes that understanding of all of the pieces of the puzzle of the human brain; thought, intelligence and capability are linked, to genetic inheritance, to nurturance, to the enrichment of exposure to all manner of learning situations so the developing brain expands its capacity to cope and understand, and the result is a mind that is nimble, expansive and flexible.

Curiosity of the world around them represents a mind prepared to absorb what it is exposed to. If exposure is limited, curiosity is dampened and experience becomes limited. Without that exposure at a time when the brain is most receptive, in the early growing years of a child, the personality will end up being less well-rounded than it might be. The balance between biological attributes of genetic inheritance and the guidance of intelligent, nurturing parents is vital to the ultimate development of a child's intellectual horizons.

This is a given, of simple common sense. New research has resulted in study findings that were published in Nature Neuroscience recently, led by Kimberly Noble of Columbia University's Teachers College and the university's medical school, along with Elizabeth Sowell as the senior author. The brain scans of almost 1,100 children and young adults from across the United States ranging in age from 3 to 20 concluded that the surface area of the cerebral cortex was linked to family income.

Simply put, children from families earning less than $25,000 annually had brain surface areas six percent smaller than offspring of those whose families earned $150,000 or more. Those children from well-off families gained a head-start in cerebral functioning expressed in brain size and the capability of the brain to function resulting from their superior start in life. The focus was on the region of the brain relating to language, memory, spatial skills and reasoning.

(As a sidenote, it is interesting that insight into social and economic disadvantage resulting in poorer comprehension and cerebral functioning is fine in scientific discussion, while ethnic or racial biological biases remain off limits as that 'red-light' bogeyman of racist discrimination.)

The latest study fits right in to new research on children's brain structures which medical technological advances in magnetic resonance imaging has made possible. A team led by John Gabrieli of MIT published another study in Psychological Science, finding differences in the brain's cortical thickness, between low- and higher-income teens. That difference was linked to standardized test scores where 57% of economically marginalized children scored proficient in math and reading tests in Massachusetts as compared with 91% of highest-income students.

The differences in brain outcomes between wealthy and impoverished children is noted, and there are hypotheses as to causation, but the research does not explain reasons for the differences in the brain, considered worrying for the simple conclusion that children born into poverty must lack the physical capacity to academic success. Noble and Sowell have their own theories; one, that poor families lack material goods aiding healthy development; good nutrition and quality health care. Alternately, that indigent families live chaotic lives, the resulting stress inhibiting healthy brain development.

Which has led into another study that may reveal a reasonable response to the puzzle of outcomes for children from opposite economic spectrums. Professor Noble has initiated a pilot study to determine whether providing low-income mothers with a monthly stipend geared toward enriching the child's opportunities, may positively impact the cognitive development of their children in the critical formative first three years of life.

Professors Sowell and Noble focus on the ability of the brain to grow and change: "That is a very critical point. The brain is incredibly able to be moulded by experience, especially in childhood", stated Professor Noble.

"We've been in the business of growing brains for 20 years now", said Mike Feinberg, a co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program, a network of 162 charter schools in 20 states focusing on quality educational opportunities. The network is responsible for educating 59,000 students and of that number 85% come from low family income origins. He feels that all children are capable of learning, irrespective of their backgrounds or family economic situation.

"For the vast majority of children, there is nothing physically about them that sets them up for success or failure as they start school. There are certainly societal circumstances that make it easier or hard for that child to learn on any given day", he observed.

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