Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Poverty and Cognition

I was catching up on my news blogs over my lunch break and noticed the following statement in a diary at Booman Tribune:
The first problem is the endemic and persistent poverty present that plagues many African American communities. Poverty has a cyclical nature. It is generational and feeds off itself. Paul Tough wrote an excellent book called How Children Succeed and it chronicles how trauma in childhood significantly messes up a child's brain. Now "trauma" can be quite broad and applies to people throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. But the prevalence of pervasive childhood trauma is a great indicator of later cognitive and behavioral problems. Damaged children make for damaged adults.

We should then look at how damaging poverty is. And it's pretty damaging. A 2009 study by Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg studied working memory in children. They looked at allostatic load. Bruce McEwen first proposed allostasis, which is way a body manages stress. So, for instance, you nearly get into a car wreck. Your body gets flooded with adrenaline, your heart pounds, you shake. But you get over it a few hours later as your body "flushes out" that stress response. But if you are constantly exposed to stress, you build up an allostatic load. What Evans and Schamberg found was that allostatic load was the best predictor of performance on short term memory. The higher it was, the poorer kids did on the test. Short term memory is a great indicator of certain types of cognitive abilities.

In other words, what we think of as "genetic advantage" - the upper middle class kids just have favorable genetic advantages that allow them to excel - is really a product of their environment. The brain is a very malleable thing in early childhood and if you pile poverty onto that process - with all the stress that poverty brings - you damage that brain.

And that damage is most prevalent in the last part of the brain to develop: the pre-frontal cortex. And it is in the pre-frontal cortex that judgment resides. That part of the brain may not finish developing until someone is 25. This is why college students think jumping from the roof of their garage into the pool is a good idea.

The problem is that poverty and its attendant stress makes it hard for the judgment centers of the brain to develop. And the results can be seen in everything from 16 year old mothers to the looting in Ferguson last night. Let's remember that 16 year old moms are not unique to the African American community but are prevalent in most poor communities regardless of race. And 16 year old mothers are going to face stress in trying to raise a child when they themselves are children, and that only perpetuates this cycle. The stress they feel is passed on to their children.

So when we talk about the legacy of poverty in this country - whether we are talking about urban African Americans or Appalachian whites or Hispanics along the Rio Grande or Native Americans on reservations - we are talking about a form of environmental brain damage.
As a social psychologist, I often discuss the importance of our environment on all manner of behaviors, including cognition. The above states the huge impact of poverty quite succinctly, and it needs to be kept in mind as we as researchers, instructors, and policy makers confront the challenge of breaking the cycle of poverty.

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