It has been fairly well documented that a lack of food leads not only to health issues but also to problems in concentration that can affect daily tasks as well as education. What is not always discussed, however, is how a lack of food security affects IQ, a person’s mental bandwidth.
Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton University, conducted a study while visiting 464 farmers in 54 villages in Tamil Nadu in southern India before and after harvest. The farmers were given two tests to document their cognitive ability.
Due to the nature of farming in the areas studied, farmers often experience a surge of money flow around harvest time and then experience extreme hardship when it runs out prior to the next year’s harvest. The team led by Shafir found that the farmers had a more difficult time being able to pay back loans and pawned more belongings due to lack of money in the period leading up to the harvest than afterwards.
The farmers scored significantly lower on the tests before the harvest when money was tight, demonstrating that worry and stress were most likely affecting their ability to think clearly. This translated into a 13-point drop in IQ. Recognizing that people in general only have a certain amount of “mental bandwidth,””stress can decrease this bandwidth and leave little room for other cognitive abilities. In addition, it can contribute to poor decision-making among those who do not have food security.
When people are constantly worried about how much food they have or how they will afford to pay for the food they need for their families, the ability to think about other things diminishes. It is not that these people are any less smart; poverty takes up so much mental space that people’s abilities to make good long-term decisions for their families decrease dramatically because more fundamental needs take precedence.
Recognition of this is important for poverty initiatives and government programs around the globe. A person who is struggling with adequate food availability may not be able to fill out an outstanding amount of paper work for assistance or even a job application. In addition, hungry students are generally not able to concentrate in class and therefore may experience poor classroom performance. This could create a situation in which a child becomes disheartened by his or her performance and drops out of school as a result. In the long term, that student may be distrustful of education, a mindset they can pass on to their children.
The study concludes that food security must be a top priority for all aid work because it connects to so many other issues. Recognizing the significant impact of food security on a person’s mental capabilities is a first step in helping development agencies better adjust their programs to be more effective in the long run.
– Andrea Blinkhorn