The human brain grows the most during the first few years of life. It has been discovered that children from poorer homes are more likely to have psychological disorders in their adult lives. To explain the correlation between poverty and psychological problems, one theory suggests that exposure to high amounts of stress during this early critical time permanently hinders an individual’s ability to cope with stress.
Testing done by Professor K. Luan Phan supports this notion. During her study, scientists examined the brain function of 24-year-old individuals, whose family situations had already been recorded 15 years prior. The participants were asked to try and control negative emotions while looking at a series of pictures.
The ability to suppress and manage feelings is key to helping individuals deal with the stress of life.
From the tests, researchers were able to conclude that the individuals who were the most impoverished at 9 years old scored the lowest on the exams as 24-year-olds. Even if the subject’s living conditions improved over the years, childhood poverty proved the dominating factor for test performance.
The findings connect childhood poverty to a lower ability to control one’s emotions. This connection supports the notion that the high-stress situation of living in poverty as a child directly affects an individual’s ability to handle strains in their adult life.
Other research done by the Washington University School of Medicine helps to explain the phenomena in a more anatomical sense. Their study showed that the psychological effects of childhood poverty are likely connected to smaller brain volumes in areas associated with emotion processing and memory. The researchers examined brain scans of children between the ages of 6 to 12, whose family history had been previously recorded.
From the scans, scientists found that the stress of poverty physically changes a child’s brain; those living in impoverished homes had smaller volumes of white and cortical gray matter. These white and gray areas are associated with the part of the brain that is associated with communication, as well as sensory and emotions. A small amount of matter in this area of the brain suggests that those functions are hampered.
So, childhood poverty has a visible effect on the brain, which reflects an impairment of emotion processing.
Though both studies are still in the testing phase, the connection drawn between childhood poverty and its lasting effects on mental development is alarming. According to UNICEF, over 22,000 children die everyday because of poverty.
Seeing the permanent damage poverty causes to childhood development highlights its severity and the critical need to address it.
– Kathleen Egan