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I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

06 April 2009

Stress-Impaired Brain Development?

taken from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/05/AR2009040501719.html

Researchers at Cornell have found a correlational link between high levels of stress during childhood, such as those caused by living in poverty, and reduced working memory in late adolescence and adulthood. This sounds interesting, but the implications are far less that the article above would like them to be.

Now, research is providing what could be crucial clues to explain how childhood poverty translates into dimmer chances of success: Chronic stress from growing up poor appears to have a direct impact on the brain, leaving children with impairment in at least one key area -- working memory.

Hey , hold on there buddy... you quoted the actual author of the study as saying:
"What this data raises is the possibility that it's also related to cognitive development."

hmm... suddenly I'm far less than impressed with the quality of the journalism.

The bottom line here is that the Post's science writer took the opportunity to heap blame for a problem with multiple probable causes on an environmental factor that happens to tie-in well with the rest of the news. That's great and all, it probably sells newspapers, but I would prefer something more objective from a good science writer... perhaps a fair analysis that accounts for the following:

1) the researcher isn't saying this is anything more than correlational data
2) there is a causal relationship here: Parents living in poverty have kids who live in poverty.
3) (2) sounds ridiculous until you consider that there's a reason the parents are living in poverty, some of that reason is indeed genetic, and these are still their children.
4) The environmental factors that shape a child's social and cognitive development most profoundly are found outside the home (see Dawkins and Pinker, among others, for that one).

It may be convenient to hand out the excuses along with the welfare, but only the 2nd need be distributed. Whether the child (or adolescent) is not-so-bright because mom and dad are also a bit dim, or because his/her mental development was stunted because his/her brain was marinating in too much cortisol is immaterial. If the kids are dumb, find them something they can do for wages instead of allowing them to collect a goverment check for free because you chose to pretend they were college bound with a room temperature IQ.

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