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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Monday, 6 October 2014
Poverty Imposes a Cognitive Burden on the Brain

Neuroscience is providing growing evidence that poverty can have serious consequences not only for the health of people who are “struggling to make both ends meet” (something that has been known for a long time), but also on their cognitive abilities. The most recent of these studies looking specifically at this aspect of poverty was published in the journal Science in August 2013 by economist Anandi Mani and her colleagues.

Using two different approaches, this research team reached the same conclusion: for people at the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum, everyday life requires so much calculation and effort just to meet basic material needs (food, shelter, etc.) that it exhausts their mental capacities. In other words, living in poverty is mentally fatiguing. And this means that people have little energy left to devote to their own education, or their children’s. As a result, their ability to make rational choices is also diminished, because this ability is developed largely through education.

In another study published in August 2013, in the journal PNAS, Pilyoung Kim et al. examined the developmental processes that may explain why the chronic stress that people experience when living in poverty as children leads to difficulties in regulating negative emotions when they become adults. (These difficulties are themselves well known to be associated with all sorts of physical and psychological health problems.)

In this study, the brains of 49 people aged 24 were examined by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Those individuals who had lived in lower-income families at age 9 showed less activity in the ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. And because these two areas of the prefrontal cortex are associated with control of the amygdala, which is heavily involved in negative emotions, the researchers believe that the stress associated with low income disrupts the development of this natural inhibitory pathway between the two parts of the brain.

i_lien La pauvreté, c’est mentalement fatigant
a_exp Poverty impedes cognitive function
i_lien Childhood poverty changes adult brain emotion regulation pathways.
a_exp Effects of childhood poverty and chronic stress on emotion regulatory brain function in adulthood
i_lien How Poverty Taxes the Brain

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