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Poverty and brain development

December 10, 2008

Results are preliminary but a study at UC Berkeley found significant differences in brain function between kids from lower and higher economic groups.  The study was corrected for prenatal and environmental health factors like lead poisoning:

“This is a wake-up call,” Knight said. “It’s not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.
Science Daily: Poor Children’s Brain Activity Resembles That Of Stroke Victims, EEG Shows

Wait, games?  We can improve kids’ neural function with games?  What about forcing them to cram for high-stakes NCLB tests?  Doing page after page of repetitious addition problems?  You mean a game of Yahtzee with your parents might be a better bet?  A basketball game with a neighborhood coach could teach them more than a multiple-choice test? 

My son Chris, reading over my shoulder as I type, quips; “Actually a game of anything with anyone would be a better bet.”

Human brains, especially developing ones, actually adapt themselves to the requirements of the challenges they face – it’s called neuroplasticity.  Give a kid a completely unchallenging environment and you get a simpler brain.  Make them think and you get a better brain.  Why should the brain be any different from the rest of the body?

The researchers posited that something as simple as parents talking to their kids over dinner could make a big difference.  And there is hope:

“It’s not a life sentence,” Knight emphasized. “We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices.”

Poverty is a difficult lock to pick; not only of the bank account, it is also of the mind and spirit.  And the key lies in relationships as much as it does in programs.  Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Isaac Asimov all came from poor or lower-class families,  but had parents who engaged them.

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Categories: Education
  1. Still Me
    December 10, 2008 at 10:39 | #1

    From the minute I gained access the internet, glaring me in the face was the fact that so few poor people have easy or reliable access to it. Many of us whine when our ISP goes down for an hour! This may be another one of the dividing factors in our society between the Haves and the Have Hots.  When you have to go to the library, and possibly wait in line, to do the things that you and I have at our fingertips 24 hrs. a day, it HAS to put a barrier up between socioeconomic groups—it simply has to. “Disenfranchisement” has been the catchword of recent years, and I have always felt that financial barriers to internet access is a major cause of disenfranchisement of certain populations within our societies.

    I did watch part of a “brain special” on PBS last night.  Brain plasticity can be positive or go in a negative direction.  It was interesting.

  2. December 11, 2008 at 08:47 | #2

    Another member of my blogroll, Hattie’s Web, also posted on this Berkely thing.

    I’m not at all sure the Internet has improved my brain function! Kidding. The added interactions have become important tome, and blogging has (at times) helped my keep my writing skills honed.

    I wish every person/child could have a stimulating environment.

  3. December 11, 2008 at 20:26 | #3

    My family was pooreer than dirt. I don’t have a PhD from the Wizard of Oz to certify my smarts, but my brother has one from Penn. The things we had were books, and parents that taught us to give a damn and to explore the world around us. Kids today (at best) have video games and parents who rely on others to raise their children because they both have to work to maintain a decent lifestyle. Then you have single parents, etc. The world is currently geared toward raising consuming idiots, at least in the US. Should we be surprised?

  4. December 12, 2008 at 08:25 | #4

    Creativity trumps repetitive crapola every time.  I just wish I’d had this study when I was trying to convince my teachers of this…

  5. December 14, 2008 at 11:48 | #5

    Funny, but Buddhists and others with a strong tradition of meditation have known about neuroplasticity for millenia.  I reccomend Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain as a highly engaging introduction.

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