The Neuroscience of Poverty


SEATTLE—One of global poverty’s most hindering features (abject living conditions and gross inequality aside) is its persistence. Once rooted in a community, the smothering cycle of poverty traps its subjects-economically, of course, but also neurologically, as research has suggested. The neural consequences of poverty include the degradation of two important cognitive functions: learning and attention. Understanding why this occurs may lead to new developments in poverty reduction, to an escape from the cycle.

The main ingredient of cognitive decline due to poverty is simple, something everyone is familiar with: stress. Specifically, it’s the chronic stress impoverished children endure on a daily basis. It’s like acute stress, the momentary nervousness most Americans think of when they hear the word, but extremely prolonged. Daily stressors could include the perpetual fear of losing a family member or not being able to find sufficient amounts of food, and thus succumbing to regional violence. The neurological consequences of such a paranoid lifestyle can be extraordinary.

Cortisol, the brain’s predominant stress hormone, is released in such situations. It increases blood sugar, metabolizes carbohydrates and responds to stressors by providing quick bursts of energy and lowering sensitivity to pain. The hormone, however, also affects the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain) and the prefrontal cortex (a part of the cerebral cortex linked to executive functioning). In excessive amounts, cortisol impairs memory, learning, planning, attention and organization.

Learning is especially affected by another consequence of increased cortisol levels: the increased complexity of neural networks in the amygdala (a fear-processing part of the brain). With this heightened intricacy, emotional (often fearful or stressful) memories become more salient than factual and academic knowledge. Information learned in school becomes difficult to retain and shadowed by evocative past events. Stress heightens memory as an evolutionary measure, as a defensive mechanism (the more clearly one remembers a stressful incident, the more likely one is to avoid similar situations in the future, thereby avoiding danger), but in impoverished communities stress works backwards, inhibiting scholastic learning.

Other studies, including work by D’Angiulli, Herdman, Stapells and Hertzman (“Children’s Event-related Potentials of Auditory Selective Attention Vary with their Socioeconomic Status”), suggest that poverty correlates with the impairment of attention. They claim that children of a lower socioeconomic status pay as much attention to irrelevant information as they do to what’s pertinent, as they are unable to differentiate between them in early stages of information processing.

Unsurprisingly, this hampers educational pursuits and impairs learning. Acknowledging these two neurological consequences of poverty, it is easier to grasp how vicious a cycle poverty really is (as if the economic consequences weren’t poignant enough). The impoverished remain impoverished because their poor conditions bar them from a highly advocated solution: school and educational empowerment. Now, to see improvement in this capacity, either the chronic stress of being in poverty must be reduced, or schools in impoverished areas must become more accommodating-or, preferably, both.

Adam Kaminski

Sources: Science News, Canada Education
Photo: Scientopia


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