Advanced search

poverty affects the brain - could even be a contributor to bad parenting - agree with the study?

(70 Posts)
fridayfridayfriday Wed 30-Oct-13 16:27:13

The Lasting Impacts of Poverty on the Brain


Poverty shapes people in some hard-wired ways that we're only now beginning to understand. Back in August, we wrote about some provocative new research that found that poverty imposes a kind of tax on the brain. It sucks up so much mental bandwidth – capacity spent wrestling with financial trade-offs, scarce resources, the gap between bills and income – that the poor have fewer cognitive resources left over to succeed at parenting, education, or work. Experiencing poverty is like knocking 13 points off your IQ as you try to navigate everything else. That's like living, perpetually, on a missed night of sleep.

That finding offered a glimpse of what poverty does to a person during a moment in time. Picture a mother trying to accomplish a single task (making dinner) while preoccupied with another (paying the rent on time). But scientists also suspect that poverty's disadvantages – and these moments – accumulate across time. Live in poverty for years, or even generations, and its effects grow more insidious. Live in poverty as a child, and it affects you as an adult, too.

Poor children had problems regulating their emotions as adults.

Some new research about the long-term arc of poverty, particularly on the brain, was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and these findings offer a useful complement to the earlier study. In this new paper, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Cornell, the University of Michigan, and the University of Denver followed children from the age of 9 through their early 20s.

Those who grew up poor later had impaired brain function as adults—a disadvantage researchers could literally see in the activity of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex on an fMRI scan. Children who were poor at age 9 had greater activity in the amygdala and less activity in the prefrontal cortex at age 24 during an experiment when they were asked to manage their emotions while looking at a series of negative photos. This is significant because the two regions of the brain play a critical role in how we detect threats and manage stress and emotions.

Poor children, in effect, had more problems regulating their emotions as adults (regardless of what their income status was at 24). These same patterns of "dysregulation" in the brain have been observed in people with depression, anxiety disorders, aggression and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Over the course of the longitudinal study – which included 49 rural, white children of varying incomes – these same poor children were also exposed to chronic sources of stress like violence and family turmoil, or crowded and low-quality housing. Those kinds of stressors, the researchers theorize, may help explain the link between income status in childhood and how well the brain functions later on. That theory, they write, is consistent with the idea that "early experiences of poverty become embedded within the organism, setting individuals on lifelong trajectories."

To add some of these findings together: Poverty taxes the ability of parents to do all kinds of things, including care for their children. And the developmental challenges that children face in a home full of stressed adults may well influence the adults that they, themselves, become

ShowMeYourTARDIS Wed 30-Oct-13 16:34:34

Agree 100%

I'm studying psychology (with an emphasis on child development) and have read similar studies. Poverty is the single biggest risk factor for poor school outcomes, among other things.

Most families who are poor do an excellent job raising their children. However, if you look at children who are struggling at school, most come from poor families.

KathrynKampbell Wed 30-Oct-13 16:37:47

Is it poverty itself though or the stress caused by poverty rubbing off on everyday life? If you handle poverty without worry and stress are the results the same? I'd be curious about that.

azzbiscuit Wed 30-Oct-13 16:38:26

There may be something in it but some of it just sounds like bollocks written with an agenda. eg:

"capacity spent wrestling with financial trade-offs, scarce resources, the gap between bills and income"

These things take a couple of seconds to think about, and then a decision is made. If these thoughts take up a large proportion of somebodies brain power over the duration of the day, that is an indicator of a lack of brain power, not that so-called poverty is holding the person back.

samandi Wed 30-Oct-13 16:45:38

Like Kathryn, I'm interested to see whether it's basically the effects of stress/depression that have such an effect.

azzbiscuit, plenty of people spend a lot of their day worrying about bills etc. It can get on top of you. If you don't have to worry about money you are certainly free to think about more things/engage in more activities.

It's very interesting.

Crowler Wed 30-Oct-13 16:49:50

I think stress is a mental bandwidth-consumer, yes.

ShowMeYourTARDIS Wed 30-Oct-13 16:55:21

In an article I read earlier this term I remember the author saying something about poverty by itself wasn't a risk factor. It was the root causes of poverty, like lack of education as well as the stress/chaos that accompanied it.

I don't remember the title or the author, but I do remember it was written in the 80s! It's rather old, but it was definitely an interesting read.

intitgrand Wed 30-Oct-13 16:56:24

Azzbizz- it's clear you have never experienced poverty.It is not just a case of quickly making a decision, of ten there is no answer, just relentless stress worry, hassle which grinds people down and down and down.
Your comment is very glib and naïve

missymarmite Wed 30-Oct-13 17:08:20

Having experienced poverty with a little one, I can tell you that money worries become like an obsession. How can you think clearly when you are worrying about how you are going to pay the rent, what will happen to your child if you are made homeless, how are you going to pay the water/electric/gas bill, can you make a meal with that last 49p you found under the sofa? It's relentless. And never simple. X

WooWooOwl Wed 30-Oct-13 17:16:40

It's interesting, but I'm not sure it could be used to factually state that poverty affects the brain based on a study of 49 children who have varying incomes. Especially when you say that the poor children were also exposed to violence and family turmoil - which could well be the real cause of the findings.

My Mum grew up in poverty. Real poverty, not relative. She and her 8 siblings do not reflect these findings at all, and nor does their 86 year old mother who is still healthy and mentally very agile.

mercibucket Wed 30-Oct-13 17:26:40

you get caught up in the day to day how to live
eg going to 3 shops to get the best deals
makes it hard to think about the bigger picture

Rosieeo Wed 30-Oct-13 17:39:18

What a load of crap. Being a bit dim can mean that you're poor, not the other way around. Why the determination to victimize people?

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 17:47:53

The damaging thing about research such as this is it leading people believing that being poor will definitely cause your brain to develop abnormally. Another thing for parents to feel guilty for.

This is an awful assumption. When does it kick in? Household income of..? This could absolutely be divisive. Should you have above a certain income in order to be deemed a fit parent? Should people who are poor be treated as if they are unable to regulate their emotions, possibly feared or at least treated as a potential risk to society as a result?

All extreme responses, however I can almost see the headlines now...

sinpan Wed 30-Oct-13 18:00:38

Seems almost evident that the stress that accompanies poverty is the problem - stress is often caused by the feeling you are trapped in a situation with no options to get out or improve your situation - there are plenty of studies to support this. I would suggest that we are entering a period when the options to change your situation are possibly more limited than they were in recent years due to a poor outlook for employability in the UK and virtually non-existent support for skills development.

But these comments are based on the conversation not the research - please can we have a link to the research?

superstarheartbreaker Wed 30-Oct-13 18:08:05

On the other hand poverty can be a driving force to success. Constantly assessing trade offs can pead to good acumen with money. Plenty of brats at my private school had no drive as mummy and daddy gave massive hand outs. Mind you greed is motivating.

superstarheartbreaker Wed 30-Oct-13 18:09:58

Wasnt obama from a poor background...and jk rowling?Certainly Dennis Waterman grew up in a council house and us now a multi millionaire. Must be lots if examples.

Preciousbane Wed 30-Oct-13 18:10:04

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 18:10:48

I wonder too whether our obsession with linking poverty to brain function is just a perpetuation of the class system in Britain.

ShowMeYourTARDIS Wed 30-Oct-13 18:13:16

Here is a link to the actual research article.

Fulltext is under "Access" on the righthand side.

Preciousbane Wed 30-Oct-13 18:14:15

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

NoComet Wed 30-Oct-13 18:19:55

I think we have to separate well educated people who fall into poverty and have at least some ability to cope and families which generations of poor school attainment.

Stress and depression affects both groups and is absolutely retched, but I think the second group have a whole lot of additional insidious problems.

The major one being having never learnt to plan, if you, your parents and your grand parents have never had enough money to see beyond the end of the week, I think it generates a very short term reactionary thought pattern which is incredibly all consuming. IME it leads to fire fighting one set of chos after another without time to think for people who thins thinking pretty stressful.

ShowMeYourTARDIS Wed 30-Oct-13 18:20:07

sorry, proper link

Bonsoir Wed 30-Oct-13 18:28:17

I agree with the research cited in the OP: the more worries you have about ensuring the basics of life, the less mindspace you are going to have available for higher things. It's not rocket science.

NoComet Wed 30-Oct-13 18:29:44

Find thinking stressful.

If you were always in the bottom groups at school, suddenly finding yourself flat broke and in a sea of benefit forms and car insurance quotes is totally bewildering, without your phone running out of credit (causing problems with the first two), and having just £5 to top up phone, eat and put petrol in the car if you sort out the insurance.

Living in the sticks, No car equals no job, equals phoning benefits office, who don't instantly pay people who fall in and out of loads of temporary jobs, repeat week in week out

pianodoodle Wed 30-Oct-13 18:32:36

It wouldn't surprise me at all. People lose sleep worrying about finances and become ill/stressed/depressed etc... That's going to affect how well you function day to day sad

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now