The Frontal Cortex

Poverty and the Brain

Whatever It Takes, the new book by Paul Tough that profiles Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone, is one of the most bracing, sobering and inspiring books I’ve read in a while. It’s the story of one man’s attempt to systematically disrupt the cycle of poverty, and fundamentally alter the nature of childhood in Harlem. Fixing the schools is only a small part of the solution: Canada realized that it was also crucial to change the typical parent-child interaction, and so he developed a Baby College where new parents are given lessons on how to speak to their child in the supermarket. In other words, poverty is a culture, a contagious way of life, and not something that can be fixed with smaller class size.

But this isn’t simply a book about social work and education. Tough also deftly summarizes much of the recent work done on the cognitive neuroscience of poverty, or how our brain is changed by the details of our upbringing. (One crucial finding is that “middle-class” parents are much more verbose than parents living in poverty. For instance, one study found that wealthier parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” towards to their child per hour. In contrast, homes with a parent on welfare averaged a mere 178 utterances per hour. This leads, over time, to dramatic differences in the vocabulary size of the child, which strongly correlates with IQ.) Martha Farah is doing some of the most interesting work in the field right now:

Farah knew that cognitive neuroscience generally divided the higher mental functions into five different systems. And neuroscientists had developed tests to measure the strength of each of the systems in any individual. When Farah gave tests to several different groups of children in Philadelphia and New York City, she found that middle-class children scored higher than poor children, on average, on the tests as a whole. But there were four specific areas where the poorer children lagged most significantly: language; long-term memory; working memory; and cognitive control, the ability to resist obvious (but wrong) answers and find unexpected ones.

Already, Farah had broken new ground. She had deduced precisely which mental abilities seemed to correlate most strongly with socioeconomic status. But she still didn’t know why that correlation existed. What was it about growing up in a poor household that hindered the development of those four systems? To answer that question, Farah turned to the HOME inventory. [The HOME inventory, or the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment, is a popular way to evaluate parental behavior.] [SNIP] Farah then compared each family’s HOME score with the child’s scores on the various neuroscience tests. The result? For the first time, Farah was able to ascertain exactly which systems in a child’s brain are affected by which parental behaviors. Children’s scores on the language tests were predicted by cognitive stimulation. Children’s scores on the memory tests were predicted by social/emotional nurturance. In other words, a child with loving but not particularly educationally oriented parents would be likely to do well on memory tests and poorly on language tests.

The point is that poverty isn’t just an idea, or a state of mind: it actually warps the mind. Some brains never even have a chance. Consider this depressing finding from the lab of Elizabeth Gould. She found that if a pregnant rhesus monkey is forced to endure stressful conditions–like being startled by a blaring horn for 10 minutes a day–her children are born with reduced neurogenesis, even if they never actually experience stress once born. This pre-natal trauma, just like trauma endured in infancy, has life-long implications. The offspring of monkeys stressed during pregnancy have smaller hippocampi, suffer from elevated levels of glucocorticoids and display all the classical symptoms of anxiety.

There are no easy answers in Whatever It Takes. While Canada’s efforts have led to some important gains in test scores, he’s also found that it’s incredibly difficult to teach or reach a child in the grip of poverty by middle-school. In other words, every intervention must start early, while the brain is still a wet ball of clay.

Comments

  1. #1 OneEyedMan
    November 6, 2008

    I guess there could be something akin to a Flynn effect operating here, where an environmental treatment could raise everyone’s IQ. I’m skeptical though. There is a big difference between growing up poor and having to listen to a blaring horn for 10 minutes a day or whatever the human equivalent would be.

    My understanding from adoption and twin studies is that adopted parent IQ has very little relationship with adult IQ of the adopted. It may well be that they talk to them less, and be correlated with higher IQ, with a totally different causal relationship then that indicated above. Instead, Smart parents could talk to their children more and have smarter kids thus explaining all the correlation. Even if the intervention shows some differences in childhood testing, change on adult intelligence is the real effect of interest.

  2. #2 Anibal
    November 6, 2008

    In relation to Marta Farah´s work assesing how economic harshness influence several brain pathways it´s fair to say that is the most valuable approach in cognitive neuroscience since many time.

    It is neuroscience at its best, because contrary to the standard social sciences´ conceptualizations of poverty the neuroscientific standpoint can be tested and quantify objectively, and then give a more respected look to neuroscience before the public eye, because ussually people believe that neuroscience is too abstract (and expensive) with no practical applications except clinical neuroscience.

    Dr. Farah´s line of research in delimiting the consequences of socioeocnomic status on the brain is astonishing, fruitful and very promising!

  3. #3 jayh
    November 6, 2008

    What did Farah do to evaluate the cause of the correlation: how to determine that non[-verbal parents might simply, genetically, tend to produce non-verbal children? Twin and adopted child studies have suggested that 'love of reading' has more to do with one's biological parents than it does with adoptive parents. [I have gotten to sample both experiences. I've always read a lot since I was a child (classic 'avid reader'), but I am occasionally affected by relatively painless migraines which turn reading comprehension into a difficult chore. Without doubt, if the natural state of my brain were like this I would be a very 'poor reader'. How much you enjoy something depends on how easy it is for you.]

    And why are the problematic parental behaviors seemingly blamed on poverty simply because they are correlated? Talking and interacting with your children costs nothing. Nurture and affection cost nothing. Perhaps some components of generational term poverty might be caused by those behaviors, rather than causing them.

    Is it also possible that those who have poorer communications abilities are disproportionately represented in poverty? Often success in social activities (including employment) is greatly enhanced by such skills. If a person cannot, or will not, acquire them, success will be limited.

  4. #4 Dr. Jennifer Austin Leigh
    November 6, 2008

    It is important for parents to talk to their children for al the reasons mentioned in the book. However, the FLIP side, is parents need classes on HOW TO LISTEN to their children. Just tackling one side of the communication process doesn’t fill in all the gaps children from impoverished families need. The healing power of being listened to is amazing. When kids feel safe enough to tell their parents who they really are, and parents how how to listen to such big (and often hard) truths, then childrens brains grow even more! Kudos for what’s being done. I would just like to see more done, as those of us who study listening, know how important it is for brain growth..

  5. #5 Spaulding
    November 6, 2008

    There’s also a great segment on “This American Life” based on Harlem Children’s Zone and its Baby College:

    Here.

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  7. #7 Neil
    November 7, 2008

    On jayh’s statement “Talking and interacting with your children costs nothing. Nurture and affection cost nothing.”

    I have to disagree. Theses activities require energy and emotional investment… alertness and time and effort. Stress, especially the constant stress of poverty, diminishes all of the above. There is nothing free in social interaction. That poverty creates a vicous cycle of depression and neglect is well documented. To address this we must first recognize we have to find a way to “pay for” energy, emotion and time parents need to provide their children witht the essential interaction.

  8. #8 jayh
    November 7, 2008

    Theses activities require energy and emotional investment… alertness and time and effort. Stress, especially the constant stress of poverty, diminishes all of the above.

    I really feel that is stretching it a whole lot, perhaps to try to find an external force to blame (if they weren’t poor, they’d talk more to their kids???).

    Are wealthier people less depressed (evidence suggests they are not)?

  9. #9 Workpost Foreman
    November 7, 2008

    I feel sorry for that Rhesus monkey.

  10. #10 Tom Jones
    November 7, 2008

    When the Chinese were coming to the US they were ill-treated
    to an amazing degree, and yet they have found success.
    Compare this to the lot of the Africans brought here in slavery, whose descendants have found less success. Why is there such a disparity of outcomes?

  11. #11 Neil
    November 7, 2008

    >>>perhaps to try to find an external force to blame (if they weren’t poor, they’d talk more to their kids???).

    Are wealthier people less depressed (evidence suggests they are not)?<<<

    Not to find an external source, just to address the fact that the time an energy needed to provide developmental interaction with children is not free. The wealthy may not be less depressed, but they have a lot more resources to find someone or something else to compensate for it (from nannies to preschool to simply safer neighborhoods to allow for healthy social interaction) or to address their own depression.

    I don’t think anyone is stating that this is an “excuse” nor as a single “reason” for poverty… but a clear correlation that needs to be addressed as one part of the larger process of eliminating poverty.

    It just seems to me that access to material resources has a clear impact on the ability to provide the nurturing experience a child needs.

  12. #12 David
    November 9, 2008

    I often wish you would respond to some of the comments on your posts, because often (as in this one) there’s really good stuff in the responses to spark further discussion. Nevertheless, this post has catalyzed new desire in me to learn more about this topic, which I’ve only had a passing association with before. Thanks for the insights as always.

  13. #13 penny
    November 12, 2008

    There are quite a few poor and verbally brillant authors in history who grew up in poverty. So, the main claim here is nonsense.

    I would be interested in the secondary claim ( because I recently also thought of it–and because it is important), that stressed mothers have children with biologically induced psychological defects. It sounds plausible–but, I would like to see proof based on HUMAN studies.

    Of course, Rich mothers are often under quite a lot of stress. The rich have many pressures–especially the working rich–ask any young lawyer mother who is trying to make partner in NYC. Rich people are often alcohol or drug abusers ( visit the Hamptons) etc.

    I see no evidence that the rich are saner or even smarter than the poor. I have lived in slums and in rich neighborhoods–and the rich are often dumb as posts. The poor are often pretty smart. Some of these rich have fancy degrees–and are still dumb as posts–consider George Bush–because their class lets them cut corners in university,
    and their class gets them into fancy universities that a poor kid would have to earn their way into by scholarship.

    The average upper-middle class person, who had upper middle class parents, would find it an extremely difficult intellectual challenge to survive in a big city slum–it requires street smarts, high social intelligence, and technical skills ( like fixing your own TV or car,
    and repairing your own plumbing, and doing your own tailoring etc.)
    It also requires knowledge of several languages–if you don’t speak
    Spanish etc., you just might not talk your way out of a deadly situation.

    Moreover, rich kids who make bad decisions have the safety net of their social class–poor kids who make bad decisions end up dead or in jail.

    Not to mention the “sports” played by slum kids. We played a “follow the leader ” game that was the same as what is now called “freerunning” or “Parkour” ( which also came from the worst slums in France)–and we were ….girls.

    In short, no-one who actually has lived poor, with the poor, thinks that poor people are generally stupid. That is a luxury of those for whom poverty is an abstraction.

    Growing up in the South Bronx required a lot more intelligence than being a member of the Institute for Advanced Study.

  14. #14 penny
    November 12, 2008

    //In other words, poverty is a culture, a contagious way of life, and not something that can be fixed with smaller class size.//

    What arrogance! Canada is another upper middle class dogooder, who sees things through the lens of his arrogance. There is a long history of such “social workers” and their interventions–who have mostly made things WORSE for the poor.

    There are plenty of rich kids who are “not spoken to well in the supermarket”–and plenty of child abused and sexually abused rich kids.
    Ask any clinical psychologist.

    What poor kids don’t learn is the collection of exploitative tricks that the upper middle class learn to get money for almost nothing–things like getting a job on wall street instead of repairing appliances, getting stock tips at cocktail parties etc.,
    calling a US senator to make sure that your company gets that contract etc.

    Poor kids don’t have access to the social network that gets a barely literate writer a job at a fancy magazine ( just look at the drivel in magazines), or a book writer with a trivial idea ( like “Proust was a Neuroscientist) a lucrative book contract–or a successful screenplay sale etc. Consider the recent US “bailout” of bankers.

    Some poor kids do have similar social connections–and we call it
    “the drug culture” or ” Organized Crime”. They do about as well as the evil rich kids–and sometimes both pay a price.

  15. #15 Lacy
    November 15, 2008

    Intriguing. This ties in nicely with a line of study I’ve been pursuing which compares the amount of touch or physical contact that an infant receives relative to physical development.

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