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Poverty and Brain Development During ChildhoodReview - Poverty and Brain Development During Childhood
An Approach from Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience
by Sebastián Lipina and Jorge Colombo
American Psychological Association, 2009
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Aug 3rd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 31)

Buenos Aires-based neurologists, Sebastián Lipina and Jorge Colombo, have devoted much of their professional energy to the insidious impact of poverty upon cognitive development.  Under the imprimatur of the American Psychological Association, they have issued a sombre clarion call to “scientists and policymakers” (xi).  What distinguishes their contribution to the debate over the past decade is their underlying appeal to a version of educational psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s “bioecological” hypothesis of human development--specifically his joint 1994 paper with S.J. Ceci (e.g., 52, 55, 71-73). 

Bronfenbrenner and Ceci, in turn, draw upon four constituents of process, person, context, and time to distinguish various interlocking environmental or contextual levels (“systems”) affecting human development. At the same time, they overtly grant that the biological or genetic “interacts with environmental experience in determining developmental outcomes” (1994: 571).  In brief, Lapina and Colombo adapt Bronfenbrenner here by pluralising each of his four constituents, principally though not exhaustively in terms of neuro- and socio-psychological features of humankind.

Each chapter of their monograph, Poverty and Brain Development During Childhood, is constructed around a set of crucial questions they answer in the affirmative.  Firstly, for instance, can the socio-economic conception of poverty be enlarged beyond calibrations of parental if not paternal occupation and income?  If it can, can it also avoid the pitfalls of “creating a dichotomy from a continuous variable” (19) in efforts to measure poverty (17ff.)?  If so, can it take into account factors directly affecting children up to the age of ten  (cf. 93-94) and thus their development such as access to nutritious food, uncrowded hygienic shelter, sufficient clothing, prompt medical treatment, nurturing schools, public transport, even mass media (3 & 15)?  Whilst curiously omitting warfare and civil strife from consideration, the authors, in their emphasis upon the “multidimensional and interrelated nature of child poverty,” simultaneously stress that “it is essential that one adjust the concept of poverty and its operational definition according to each research context” (4).  By so claiming, it becomes evident that their notion of poverty rapidly shifts towards that of impoverishment and deprivation and that, in turn, is said to vary according to “the scientific discipline involved” (6)--a point to which we shall return at the end of this paper. More specifically, “environmental deprivation,” which Lipina and Colombo identify with “material and social conditions,” is said to be analysable from the “molecular” level upwards, affecting the “working memory,” “attention,” “self-regulation,” and “planning” of infants and children when acquiring literacy and numeracy (6-7).  Indeed, the authors, when conceding that “the satisfaction of noneconomic needs is also modulated indirectly by household economic conditions,” persist in the contention:

Not satisfying any one of these noneconomic (more cultural)...needs could result in being considered poor.  Consequently, poverty could assume a dimension with either biological or cultural dominance (15).

 But if, for example, sullen Karina now in Grade Two were deprived of her mother’s care and affection and restless Alyssa similarly were deprived of her father’s care and affection, yet Karina in all other respects came from a wealthy background unlike Alyssa, then it would be puzzling to construe such deprivation alone as a criterion of poverty.  In other words, whilst poverty entails deprivation, deprivation need not entail poverty although it may form an active ingredient leading towards various forms of impoverishment.  Educational deprivation, to take another instance, whilst constituting what we take to be educational impoverishment, cannot invariably result in poverty any more than in wealth.

          Turning from the failure of efforts to measure “the interrelationship and interdependence between phases, contexts, and dimensions” (28) characterizing their enlarged notion of poverty, Lapina and Colombo raise a second set of questions.  Can we nowadays identify “the environmental impact of privations on child brain development” (31)?  Summarizing three generations of concentrated enquiry into the hierarchical organization and functions of the developing brain and its potential modifications during so-called critical or sensitive periods, the authors claim that experiments with animals demonstrate how external factors “exert significant influences,” particularly upon “temperament, social behavior, and cognitive skills” (49).  They have little hesitation extolling the virtues of animal research because it is “the means to elucidate fundamental, underlying, developmental, and neurobiological processes” (49). 

That useful correlations with other species can be postulated is not in dispute. That human development unlike any other might be transformed and mediated by the acquisition of speech is neglected (notwithstanding the implications of Wolfgang Köhler’s research early last century).  This becomes more apparent as Lapina and Colombo engage their third set of “ecological” questions, including, for example, can “a systemic approach” of the kind associated with Bronfenbrenner account for the “several factors linked to the child’s biological history” and consequently provide “significant implications for the design criteria of interventions” (51)?  In short, can “ecological studies” license “scientific research to influence policy” (51)?  In the course of affirming such questions, Lapina and Colombo consider “commonly described” effects of poverty upon “cognitive performance” (also termed, yet not obviously equivalent to, “cognitive competencies”) (59).  Not unsurprisingly, tests typically removed from everyday contexts report differences amongst children of different “socio-economic status” by way of an inventory comprising verbal fluency, syntactic development, lexical knowledge, and the like under the broad labels of “creativity,” “language outcomes,” “problem solving,” “reading achievements,” “verbal ability,” none of which is explicated in terms of the other, let alone of cognition per se (59ff.).  Instead, the authors dismiss the failure of such reports to deal with the multiplicity of causes and effects (cf. 63-64) impinging upon the connexions between poverty and child development; a failure which fast becomes their rationale for pursuing “ecological perspectives” (70ff.).

The fourth set of questions posed before Lapina and Colombo conclude with chapters on intervention programs and public policy respectively centre upon scientific cognitive studies which should enable “researchers to investigate how neural networks organize thought processes and how poverty modulates such processes” (75).  If so, they ask, can poverty be shown to affect “tasks demanding attention, inhibitory control, working memory, self-monitoring, and linguistic processing” (75)?  In the course of outlining the likely “neurocognitive basis” of poverty’s impact upon cognition (76ff.), Lapina and Colombo when reviewing, say, the recent work of M.J. Farah, K.G. Noble, and colleagues (79ff.) begin to veer towards the mereological fallacy.  The fallacy is nowhere more graphically illustrated than in Table 4.1 (82-83) which ties psychological attributes--memory, perception, and so forth--to the brain or its components in order to explain the possession of such attributes and the exercise of identifiable cognitive tasks or powers, or, in this case, deficiencies in their exercise amongst the poor.  In other words, as argued by M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker in their 2003 volume Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, psychological attributes, which conceptually are what we ascribe to whole persons, are fallaciously here being predicated of a physical portion of persons. Bluntly expressed, to return to our Grade Two girls, Karina’s occipital lobe no more perceives than Alyssa’s temporal lobe remembers: Karina perceives, Alyssa remembers.  Although Lapina and Colombo concede that corroboration from the new field of neuro-imaging “awaits further research” and that neuro-cognitive studies remain “preliminary” (90), they nonetheless assert their contribution to the

identification of the preferential sets of neural components and their dynamic changes underlying cognitive operations as well as their interactions involved...that is, whether language modulates SES [socio-economic status] impact on cognitive control or SES modulates learning skills associated with preferential brain areas (90-91).

          Owing to constraints upon length, a detailed examination of the last two chapters on examples of intervention and the dissemination and advocacy of neurological contributions to public policy will have to be curtailed.  Instead, let us conclude by revisiting the initial contention by Lapina and Colombo that one’s conception of poverty and deprivation varies according to “the scientific discipline involved” (6).  Accepting this invitation, let us take from the realm of the social sciences an hypothesis associated with an educational sociologist and contemporary of Bronfenbrenner, Basil Bernstein.  Bernstein’s approach re-formulated in the mid-‘seventies ultimately questions how poverty and children’s development can be construed. Indeed, he promotes the kind of influential alternative Lapina and Colombo avoid confronting. 

Might there be a case for regarding, say, Alyssa’s lower and Karina’s higher socio-economic families as involving markedly different forms of socialization such that the language of Alyssa tends towards the verbally implicit whereas that of Karina tends towards the explicit?  At the same time, continues Bernstein, the lower class household of Alyssa (to use a more controversial term) will be more focused upon objects and the positional or authoritative roles within her family whereas Karina’s household focuses upon persons and the negotiable roles within her family.  Again, re-casting the foregoing, Alyssa’s class emphasizes the importance of group solidarity and tends to select more heavily from non-verbal or paralinguistic signals in acts of communication whilst Karina’s class emphasizes the importance of individual communication and hence operates more noticeably with verbal signals.  If such tendencies do exist, can we begin to see how lower classes are more oriented to implicitly realized particular meanings which reveal greater dependence upon familiarity with the context of the utterance whereas higher classes are more oriented to explicitly realized general meanings which manifest a greater independence from the original context of the utterance?  Should such a thesis have any credence, then it is not too great a leap to characterize the language of social institutions - the educational as much as the medical, the governmental as much as the legal – as more akin to the verbal world of a Karina than of an Alyssa.  And in countenancing such possibilities, we need not commit ourselves to viewing the seeming deprivations of an Alyssa as marked by deficiencies: her socio-linguistic orientation is simply different.  To introduce her to the orientation in which Karina was reared seems to be a task outside the scope of neuro-cognitive studies.

All in all, Poverty and Brain Development During Childhood is a forceful, albeit technical, manifesto which stakes claims to the potency of neuro-cognitive contributions to public debate and policy.  However, its succinct summaries and appraisals of decades of clinical and pedagogic research never quite maintain its initial probing of definitions of poverty.  Instead, as we have highlighted above, it fails to pursue the conceptual relationship between poverty and deprivation; it underestimates the role of language in explanations of cognitive development; it extols the applicability of a socio-psychological paradigm articulated by Bronfenbrenner without pausing to consider, or, more precisely, counter, a contemporaneous alternative by Bernstein.  Perhaps, in the end one cannot expect more of a manifesto.  It is the lot of the manifesto, whatever its target, to promote action in a bifurcated world.

 

© 2010 R.A. Goodrich

 

R.A. Goodrich teaches in the School of Communication & Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues, and co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a longitudinal project investigating behavioral, cognitive, and linguistic aspects of higher-functioning children within the autistic spectrum of disorders.


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