Growing the Brain

In a previous blog I described a study that suggested creative activity encourages brain growth. Yesterday Nature Magazine published the results of another study that looked at brain development. This one linked income level to infant brain size.

Carried out by two researchers, Kimberly Noble from Columbia University and Elizabeth Sowell from LA’s Children’s Hospital, the study showed that infants from lower income families suffer a reduction in brain size. The implications of this study are that income disparity may have life-long, potentially irreversible consequences for children. These consequences go beyond the obvious disadvantage of diminished opportunity.  Even if at some point opportunity is equalized, children from low income homes may never be able to optimally exploit it.

Most of us are familiar with the nature/nurture debate.  Essentially, this discussion weighs the influence of environmental factors such as parenting, neighborhood and schooling against inherited traits. The Nobel/Sowell study, if it holds up, invalidates the debate. According to the study, nature is not a fixed element that can be juxtaposed against environment; it is a function of environment.

The observed effect of income level on brain size is so marked that even within lower income groups, variations of a few thousand dollars result in brain size disparity. If confirmed, the results of the Nobel/Sowell study ought to have a profound effect on the political dialogue that centers on economic equity.

Of thirty-three OECD countries,Chile, Mexico, Turkey, the United States and Israel were the five with the greatest income inequality.  That inequality may translate into millions of lifetimes of relative disadvantage.  Expand the focus of the results globally and a vast population, much of the world in fact, suffers that relative disadvantage.

It is true that we all want our children to maximize the potential with which nature has endowed them. But what if that potential is not fixed by nature? What if potential is at least partly a man-made artifact, a consequence of political and economic policies that perpetuate income inequality?

The authors of the Children’s Hospital/Columbia study are careful to explain that they don’t know exactly which factors influence brain size in infants.  The researchers guess the factors might be the usual suspects: nutrition, exposure to toxins, poor social stimulation. They suggest that tinkering with manageable factors during gestation and afterwards might have a beneficial influence.

However, it seems to me that the researchers pull back from the obvious remedy: close the income gap. This prescription, though obvious, is one that many people will find ideologically unpalatable.  Whenever wealth distribution is discussed there’s inevitably talk about freedom and choice. Which begs the question, what choice is given to an infant who lies in a crib with a destiny diminished by low income? What freedom does that infant have to forge a successful future?

Of course, there’s a larger issue than the individual tragedy of lost potential.  There’s the societal cost.  Children with less potential become adults who are less able. That is not in anyone’s interest, no matter their income level.

brain development
Credit for this image goes to Van Essen Lab(Washington University in St. Louis), in collaboration with Terrie Inder, Jeff Neil, Jason Hill, and others. http://brainvis.wustl.edu/wiki/index.php/Main_Page The image illustrates human cortical development through gestation and into adulthood.
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Creative Writing and the Brain

brain imaging activity NIH 2
These pictures show magnetic imaging impressions of brain activity. These reflect responses to specific visual stimuli. On the left, the subject was looking at faces. On the right the subject was looking at houses. The MRI frames were provided by the National Institutes of Health.

Just about everyone agrees that writing is an essential skill.  Even the most frugal educators include at least some writing instruction in their curriculum.  What modern science is teaching us is that writing is not only a skill; it is also important in brain development.

Neurologists, with the aid of imaging technology, have been able to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are activated during specific creative activity. This applies not only to writing, but also to music, drawing and even “brainstorming”, which is preparatory to creative work.

During  creative writing activity, the right and left hemispheres of the brain interact with each other.  Although creativity is considered to be  ‘right brain’ centered, it seems that to complete the creative act, the left brain has to kick in.  This phenomenon was observed not only during the writing phase, but also during the period preparatory to writing, when ‘brainstorming’ takes place.  Visualizing, imagining material to be written, precipitates  coordination of different parts of the brain.

A study from the University of Greifswald, Germany looked at brain function in experienced writers.  The individuals in this group had highly developed writing skills.  The brain images of the writers showed increased prefrontal and basal ganglia activation. Also noted in the images was an increased development in the right cuneus, which is involved in reading processes.

Another  study at the University of  Greifswald looked at the creative writing processes during various stages of the work.   The authors of the study noted changes  in brain activity as the work progressed.   In the planning, or brainstorming phase, “cognitive, linguistic, and creative brain functions mainly represented in a parieto-frontal-temporal network” were activated.  During the actual writing phase,  “motor and visual brain areas for handwriting and additionally, cognitive and linguistic areas” were activated.   The authors of the second Greifswald study were careful to distinguish between groups that engaged in creative writing  and those that merely copied material.  The verbal association and integration patterns evident in the creative writing group were not evident in the brain images of the copiers.

Traditionally, creative writing has been part of many school programs because basic writing skills are important and creative writing is considered to be a nice extra curricular activity.  Perhaps it is time to reexamine the importance placed on writing and other creative activities.  Science seems to show that brain development is enhanced by exposure to creative exercise, whether that exercise is in writing, music or art.  Each of these areas seems to activate different parts of the brain.   Educators–and that certainly includes parents–should consider the evidence and think about considering creative activity to be as essential as the established pillars of education: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

the three rs John_Chippendall_Montesquieu_Bellew
Master of one of the three Rs, John Chippendall Montesquieu Bellew. Here Mr. Bellew is giving a public reading. He enjoyed a reputation for being a great orator. Image derived from a cartoon, 1873. Copyright expired.