Tag Archives: poverty

Martha Farah and the neuroscience of poverty

CNN has a nice profile of Martha Farah and her work exploring the impact of poverty (socioeconomic status-SES) on brain development. Much of educational neuroscience isn’t ready yet for prime time, but among its greatest contributions so far is a deeper understanding of the impact of stress and low literacy on developing young minds. Farah runs the Neuroscience Boot Camp at Penn, which I attended in 2011. The 10-day intensive seminar helped prepare me for my Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. Here’s a sample of the profile, which you should read in full.

For much of her career, Farah continued studying vision and memory. That subject is far more controlled and better understood than what she’s doing now, which involves looking at the brain’s response to circumstances of social class.

She got interested in questions of the brain and social class when she started hiring baby sitters for her daughter, now 17. Among the women she hired to take care of her daughter were single mothers on welfare who were making extra money by baby-sitting. In the scientific literature, they would be called “low SES” — in other words, low socioeconomic status.

Farah watched over time how the lives of the baby sitters and their children were different from her own.

“I actually became pretty obsessed with social class,┬áthis major dimension of variation in the human race and certainly in American society,” Farah said.

As sociological studies have corroborated, it seemed to Farah that child-rearing and children’s early experience was very different depending on social class.

Poor children don’t get as much exposure to language as their wealthier counterparts, research has found, and they tend to get more negative feedback. What they do hear is not as grammatically complex, with a narrower range of vocabulary. There is less understanding of how children develop and what they need for cognitive development, Farah said.

Stress is another huge factor in these disparities.

Parents of low socioeconomic status have uncertainty about having basic needs met, dangerous neighborhoods, crowding and other factors, causing stress for children and their parents. Stressed parents are less patient and affectionate, further stressing their children, according to Farah.

Farah wanted to investigate the huge differences she saw.

“We’re so segregated by class, we don’t even realize we’re segregated because we don’t even know what life is like just two miles north of here,” she said.