Monday, March 6

This is Your Brain on Poverty

For some time it was believed that animals grew no new neurons in the cortex of their brains upon reaching adulthood -- their fate was basically sealed by their generic nature. This was apparently proved by Pasco Rakix, a neuroscientist. However, Fernando Nottebohm soon found that adult canaries made new neurons when they learn new songs. So Rakic replied that it was only adult mammals who could not grow neurons. But soon afterward, Elizabeth Gould found that rats do. Thus Rakic zeroed in on primates. Gould found them in tree shrews. It was then only higher primates. Gould found them in marmosets. So Rakic finally zeroed it down to old-world primates who could not grow new neurons. Gould then found them in macaques.

Now it is almost certain that all primates, including humans, grow new neurons in response to new experiences, and loose neurons in response to neglect. Thus, with all the determinism built into the initial wiring of our brain, experience with our surrounding environment refines and in some cases rewires that initial wiring.

Along with her discovery, Gould noticed something else -- put the brain under stressful conditions and it starves itself by failing to create new cells. There are severe social implications with this. Environments that are boring, have stressful noises, poverty, etc., have playing fields that are no longer level when compared to enriched environments. The brains that live in impoverished environments never have a chance as poverty and stress are no longer just concepts but are actual parts of a person's anatomy.

Christian Mirescu, one of Gould's post-docs probably said it best, "When a brain is worried, it's just thinking about survival. It isn't interested in investing in new cells for the future."

So how is this impacting us? America has one of the highest childhood poverty rates among rich nations (only Mexico's is higher and they are not really all that rich). As David Berliner writes, "The USA likes to be #1 in everything, and when it comes to the percent of children in poverty among the richest nations in the world, we continue to hold our remarkable status."

Berliner, the Regent's Professor of Education at Arizona State University, started to dig into the data of high-stakes testing and poverty. He discovered that when you take the scores of the poverty-stricken out of the national averages, then the U.S. ranks up there with the best of other nations. Leave them in and we plainly suck -- we are very near the bottom of the heap as compared to other rich nations.

Thus our high poverty rate ensures that our national student test averages remain low. Our answer -- more high-stake testing. In other words, we keep trying to test a disfigured brain, hoping that it will somehow work its way out of poverty and become a productive member of our society. Yet all too often...

Woman hold her head and cry
Cause her son had been shot down in the street and died

Wanna tote guns and shoot dice.
all mah life i've been considered as the worst. lyin' to mah mother even stealin' out her purse
crime after crime
from drugs to extortion
i know my mother wish she got a abortion

Woman hold her head and cry
Cause her son had been shot down in the street and died

From "Hold Ya Head" by the Notorious B.I.G. [featuring Bob Marley]

In the end, poverty becomes both nature and nurture, which helps to ensure that it stays a visious circle.


THE REINVENTION OF THE SELF - Jonah Lehrer From the FEB/MAR 2006 issue of Seed

Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform - David C. Berliner


steven rix said...

I bookmarked your blog since I work as an amator on teaching/learning efficient concepts with the Internet.
It is interesting that I can find a total symbiosis between biology and philosophy on human reactions (it's called experience vs experiment).

I guess when a brain is worried, only certain regions of the brain are affected. In neurology, the brain is separated in 2 different activities between the left and the right hemisphere. Isn't one side of the brain always opposed to the other side of the brain?
Analytical vs synthetical
Creative vs mathematical
... etc
I would like to hear your feedback in this biological concept.

From a psychological point of view, don't you think that we are "ratlabs" as well in terms of geopolitical goals when we try to exploit fears and obedience for example, which is also a survival instinct as well and takes into account any socio-professional categories? How close are we from the animals when it comes in terms of survivals since the Human Being perfectly knows they are limited in time?

Thanks in advance.

By the french beret.

Peter Isackson said...

I see a link between your posting and the previous one by Jay, including the debate it stimulated. Poverty impoverishes the brain, but more than anything it impoverishes the social personality, the same one we need (not the brain alone) to contribute to the life of a blog.

Your point about the divide is chilling when you think about it (and thanks for making us think about it). There are in fact two strategies: the one you mention about high-stakes testing and the other Marie-Antoinette style answer, "let the poor rot since without them we still manage to create an elite". Our insitutions are rapidly achieving an unprecedented degree of cynicism, reflected for example in the quote by a senior White House adviser related in an article by Ron Suskind in the NY Times Magazine in October 2004:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

What I find most extraordinary in the quote is not the admission of a vision of political empire, but the characterization of the journalist (and most of us on this blog) as "the reality-based community". It's something we might be proud of, even if makes us second class citizens of the empire.

Godfrey Parkin said...


It seems to me that your administration aide is right. The accelerating pace of change in our world (in all things – technology, life-cycles, social fragmentation, geopolitics, climate, the arts) results in (and is further driven by) our constantly “leaping before we look” just to stay on our feet. It’s like trying to run down a steep slope – if you hesitate before each step, you fall. But if you don’t hesitate, you hurtle forward with a building momentum that may ultimately lead to an even more catastrophic fall. The faster you go, the less in control you are of where you go and how you get there. And the less certain the ultimate outcome becomes. But it’s a rush, in more ways than one, and once you have begun there is no going back.

Our analytical abilities are incapable of keeping up. We take much too long to gather data, analyze, study, understand, and provide some kind of model or rules-based logic on which to extrapolate today’s actions into future outcomes. By the time we come up with the theoretical frameworks, the reality has moved on, leaving the rational analysts with possibly sound models that are no longer relevant. Where I disagree with your aide is in labeling those rational analysts as “reality-based” because they are in effect history-based. While I am a great believer in the notion that history has lessons that are timeless, I fear that the contextual gap between ancient historical data (i.e. what we measured last month) and the reality of the distant future (i.e. this afternoon) is rapidly increasing.

The implications for corporate training (not to mention corporate strategy) are both exciting and terrifying. Spontaneity, creativity, intuition, flexibility, talent, and risk-taking will acquire new value, and committees, bureaucracy, and 1950’s-style management practices will be undermined. For me, one really bright prospect in all of this is that accountants may finally become irrelevant, or at least lose their stranglehold on corporate evolution. On the flip side, I fear the declining influence of rational analysis.

As for Don's observations about the human brain, I am not a neuroscientist – but, as a complete layman, I suspect that evolution is happening faster than we can measure it. In fact the dimensions used to measure evolution may no longer be relevant. I have a feeling that a child’s brain is wiring itself differently today from the way my father’s brain was wired, but that his wiring was probably not significantly different from his own father’s. The circumstances and stimuli of today’s (developed-world non-poor) children are so different, the requirements for data filtering and knowledge retrieval so extreme, and the need to develop instinctive rather than conscious skill-based behavior so alarming, that we may be seeing brain wiring changes that (God help us) may become genetically transmitted to future generations. And those not exposed to the stimuli (the vast majority of the world’s population) may be left behind. Education used to be a leveler; I’m not sure that education alone is enough any more. I’m also not convinced that the “new wiring” is a good thing, nor that it is in the best long-term interests of the planet.

The “reality-based” analysts play an important role in helping us understand why and how things used to work. But, increasingly, their ability to influence or even predict the future is waning. In the cold-war days, when sober reflection was the norm, we were justifiably concerned that one person’s finger could push a button and obliterate the world as we knew it. When you have a society (or an administration) that is so dismissive of rational analysis and so infatuated with taking action in order to define new realities, the cold-war days seem positively carefree…

Godfrey Parkin

Mark said...

I agree and applaud the post and all the comments. My only wish is that thinking like this would somehow permeate the courses of instruction that our young instructional designers are going through in school right now. My wildest hope would be that this post would be the dawn of a new understanding, in the schools of instructional design, that learning is an incredibly complex process that is touched on and affected by a range of vectors - economics, neurobiology, and more.