How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development
The American poverty epidemic is many things to many people. A cause to rally around for some, a target of political debate for others, and a fact of society often ignored by many. But, for the 46.5 million Americans living below the poverty line (Current Population Survey, 2013), it is a reality that brings challenges, stress, and hardships most of us will never face. 15 million of these Americans are children, born and raised in an environment that is dictated by their socioeconomic status. (Hanson, et al, 2013) These children often experience increased exposure to family turmoil, violence, separation from their family, instability, and end up receiving less support from their community. (Hanson, et al, 2013). Recent studies have shown that such an environment as a substantial impact on brain development.
The direct causes are not clear, but the differences in children’s brain growth and development are likely due to the fact that low-SES children generally experience lower cognitive stimulation and enrichment, are spoken to less and in less sophisticated ways, and are less likely to be engaged in literary activities. (Hanson, et al, 2013) Consequently, these children are more likely to suffer with learning, behavioral, mental, and physical health problems than children from higher-SES homes. Similar animal studies have also yielded the same results. When researchers manipulate their environments to limit stimuli and increase stress, the animals tend to have smaller brains, fewer neurons, dendrites, synapses, glial cells, and myelination when compared to animals that have not had their environments altered. (Hanson, et al, 2013) Twin studies show gray matter development in particular, is impacted by our environment verses our genes. (Hanson, et al, 2013) When researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied children from birth to age 4, results showed that poor children lag behind in the development of the parietal and frontal regions of the brain. The developmental difference in these areas likely explains many of the behavioral, learning, and attention problems observed in higher rates among lower-SES children. (Wood, 2013)
This figure shows total gray matter volume for group by age.
Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g002
This figure shows frontal lobe gray matter volumes for group by age.
Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g003
This figure shows parietal lobe gray matter volumes for group by age.
Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g004
A lack of nurturing may be a specific detrimental difference experienced by children in poverty. A study from the Washington University School of Medicine observed children between the ages of 6-12 as they interacted with their parent. Parents living in poverty were observed to be more stressed and less capable of nurturing impatient children. MRIs revealed that these same children had less gray and white matter in their brains, and smaller amygdala’s and hippocampus’s, affecting their emotions, memory, and learning abilities. (Whiteman, 2013)
Are these simply people displaying bad parenting skills? Shouldn’t we blame them instead of the child’s environment? In response to the August 2013 findings in Science, which stated that poverty hurts people’s ability to make decisions and has the affect of losing 13 IQ points (Thompson, 2013), The Atlantic published some comments written by people experiencing poverty first hand. A few of the revealing statement by one reader included, “I will never not be poor. I have proven that I am a Poor Person, that is all I am or ever will be. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. We don’t plan long-term because we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.” (Thompson, 2013) It is clear that the mindset and outlook of a person in poverty is very different than those living in higher socioeconomic classes. The sense of the “inescapability of poverty is so severe that one abandons long-term planning entirely.” (Thompson, 2013) This may help us understand how and why a parent in poverty interacts with, and relates to, a child differently than those without these issues.
The good news is that these developmental lags need not be permanent. With proper stimulation, these children can catch up and close the gap. Finding ways to provide an enriched, safe environment, teaching caregivers to be more nurturing, and giving children time to play and explore are of vital importance. (Wood, 2013) It is up to society to determine what can be done to close the gap, and give these children the same ability to take advantage of opportunities as their wealthier peers. It is not enough to simply leave these children to fail or succeed on their own. The cost to society, in terms of financial, intellectual, emotional, and health issues, is too great to simply be ignored. Personally, I hope to work towards my teaching certification after graduating from Cedar Crest with my BA in Psychology. By tailoring my education to serve those in urban, low-income schools, I can try to be a small part of the bigger need to improve the future of these kids.
Current Population Survey 2013 Annual Social and Economic Supplement. (2013). United States Census Bureau. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/
Hanson, Jamie. Hair, Nicole. Shen, Dinggang. Shi, Feng. Gilmore, John. Wolfe, Barbara. Pollak, Seth. (2013, December 11) Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth. PLoS One 8(12). Retrieved from: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0080954
Thompson, Derek. (2013, November) Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/your-brain-on-poverty-why-poor-people-seem-to-make-bad-decisions/281780/
Wood, Janice. (2013) Poverty Hinders Kids’ Early Brain Development. Psych Central. Retrieved from: http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/12/15/poverty-negatively-impacts-childrens-early-brain-development/63305.html
Whiteman, Honor. (2013, October 29). Childhood Poverty Affects Brain Development. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/268066.php