A couple of weeks ago I listened to an excellent podcast series on poverty in America. One message that stuck with me is just how many factors the poor have working against them—factors that, if you’re not poor, are all too easy to deny, disregard, or simply fail to notice. In the March issue of Scientific American, neuroscientist Kimberly Noble highlights one such invisible, yet very real, element of poverty: its effect on brain development in children.
When considering such a complex topic, any sort of data-driven approach can feel mired in confounding factors and variables. After all, it’s not as if money itself has any impact on the structure or function of one’s brain; rather, it is likely to be an amalgamation of environmental and/or genetic influences accompanying poverty, which results in an overall trend of relatively low achievement among poor children. By definition, this is a multifaceted problem in which correlation and causation seem virtually impossible to untangle. Nonetheless, Noble’s lab is tackling this challenge using the best scientific tools and methods available.
First, it is essential to define the problem: in what specific ways does poverty impact brain function? To address this question, Noble recruited some 150 children from various socioeconomic backgrounds and used standard psychological testing methods to evaluate their abilities in several cognitive areas associated with particular parts of the brain. As outlined in the graphs below, the relationships are clear, especially in terms of language skills.