Children’s Brain Are Indeed Harmed by Poverty

A very recent article in the Wall Street Journal published in its weekend edition of May 16-17, 2015 entitled “The Income Gap In the Growth of Children’s Brains,” penned by Ms. Alison Gopnik in the column entitled Mind and Matter,

After 30 years of Reagan style “Trickle Down Economics,” which as my biased mind understands it, jobs are created for the workers further down the employment food chain, when the wealthy get wealthier and spend great amounts of their monies starting more factories, thereby “manufacturing” more jobs for the non-CEOs among us, which is apparently the majority. The only trouble is, most of the new factories have migrated for three decades out of this country to the Third World’s developing economies with labor costs approximately 1/20th of the American economy’s. Consequent to this, millions upon millions of children have entered the state of poverty in numbers not seen since the segregation era. Now comes what I believe will the first wave of scientific study that will talk about the white elephant in the room, the damage done by poverty status to the developing brains of very young children who cannot pull themselves up by their Reaganomic bootstraps and pull themselves out of their worlds in no money for school lunch, mayonnaise and margarine sandwiches; and forget about all the other essential but costly “food groups.”

The white elephant that has been so hard to talk about directly and for some quarters who do not accept that social factors can be supremely cruel causes of social problems, who view sociological explanations of societal unrest, periodic but predictable outbreaks of massive social unrest [read RIOTING and all that goes with it…] as being heresy against ‘the American Way’ and belief system that ‘anyone can make it’ if they are determined enough.

Ms. Gopnik’s summary reports on an MIT study headed by John Gabriell and colleagues demonstrated in a controlled, comparative study that low income children had consistently thinner layers of their cortices, the other layers of the advanced areas of the brain, the cerebral cortexes ( or more properly speaking: cortices ) that perform many of the higher functions of the brain. These effects were tellingly independent of being a member of any ethnic or racial group. The measures of cortical functioning, intelligence, cognitive processing, etc., were lower in children with thinner outer cortical layers.

Brain development correlating with higher cognitive functioning has been studied in many animal models since for over 60 years in the neuroscience research communities in scores of major universities. We can now state with complete confidence, that the brain is a wonderful “plastic” organ. This means that the brain has the unique ability to make itself over, remake itself, and spur its development in different directions in response to the type of experience the host animal/child goes through in its formative development. Whether the organism is the primitive flatworm, the staple of experimental neuroscience: the “lab rat,” or the higher mammals, i.e., primates, the early experiences of that organism’s social and environmental experience drives the brain development. Experiments since Harry Harlow’s deprivation of baby monkeys from the reassuring holding by their mother, produces tragically socially deficient, sad, depressed, fearful monkeys as they matured. The concept of periods of “critical (brain) development came to be well accepted dogma in our understanding in the interplay between brain and experience. Rene Spitz the famous French pediatrician in Paris of nearly a century ago discovered the same phenomenon in human infants. These children were ‘housed’ in individual cribs in ‘foundling homes,’ or orphanages in our modern parlance. These infants and toddlers had atrociously low contact with a mothering figure. The nuns routinely cared for up to 60 infants at a time. They could only spend enough time to change diapers or bathe these children and little else. No individual play, reading or cuddling, rocking or singing. These children were found to have the then termed syndrome of “infantile autism” or “depression,” and demonstrate the sad phenomenon of “ruminating,” in which they would regurgitate their feedings into their mouths, chew it over and over again, so starved for soothing self stimulation were they.

We also know that developing immature organisms, whether baby rats, other mammals or infant-toddler-preschool children do less well with exposure to violence, chronic stress and/or existential uncertainty that comes from not knowing if one’s parent will be sober, i.e., awake or able to feed one, from one dad to the next.

Factor into this malignant development recipe for any vulnerable child, the inability of the family to afford even the most modest learning experiences, no Golden Books, no LeapPad, no television upon which to watch the wealth of early childhood learning programs that got their real start with Children’s Television Workshop’s famous Sesame Street. And you have an under-stimulated child’s brain at a time when it is needed most and most receptive to such that accelerates social and intellectual development.

And this finding highlights once again from a different perspective the enormous importance of the HeadStart educational programs of all kinds that start educational-social experiences of the post toddler. One can never start too early to enrich the developmental experience of the very young.