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ATD Blog

This is Your Brain on Poverty


Tue Mar 07 2006


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

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