Category Archives: Psychology

Healing from Family Rifts – Mark Sichel. 

“That’s it. I’ve had it. I never want to see or hear from you again.” These words are terrible, whoever says them. But when they come from your mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, or spouse, or when you find yourself saying them yourself to a family member, you know, for the moment, what hell is like.

Angry banishments don’t come from nowhere. They usually erupt out of years of backed-up resentments, long-held grudges. They may follow intolerable mental, emotional or physical abuse.

But soon, however justified or inevitable the explosion may have seemed, however determinedly resigned you may have tried to be about a family cutoff, feelings almost always start to change.

However shaky your family’s bonds may have been to begin with, however little or much love you may have felt toward or from them over the years, the idea that those bonds have been eradicated almost always wreaks a terrible havoc.

Losing a mother or father or child or sibling as the result of family exile can be as traumatic as losing them to death. Sometimes a good deal more, because death, at least, is usually not seen as anyone’s “fault.” Whatever we may say that we feel or think or believe about our families, almost inevitably, deep down, we yearn for connection to them.

Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to say it. Almost every family rift causes deep shame and embarrassment.

Maybe you try to ignore it, tell yourself to “snap out of it” or otherwise white-knuckle yourself into pretending that all will be well if you can just hang on long enough, put your mind on something else. But even if you manage to put up a good show, inside it’s not working. I don’t have to tell you this. You wouldn’t have picked up this book if it were otherwise.

The most important “reconciliation” is the one you learn to make with yourself. All healing proceeds from that.

All traumas are more magnified and psychologically upsetting when human beings rather than nature cause them.

On two decades of evidence of the scores of my patients who’ve faced both kinds of trauma, the psychological “death” of a family cutoff clearly tends to remain torturous, and very much more emotionally damaging.

What compounds the problem: the terrible secrecy that usually attends family cutoffs, and the related fact that there is very little formal help offered to people who’ve undergone them. Many family members feel self-imposed pressure to go on as if their lives were still normal; thus, avenues for healing and recovery become even more elusive. After all, this trauma isn’t only of human design, it’s the design of members of your own family: the very people you thought loved you most in the world. That isn’t something you’re likely to broadcast, or even tell most of your best friends in private. However, you need to talk right now, and to recognize that the task of healing from your family rift will take a much greater effort than you probably have ever previously brought to emotional distress in your life. With the right attitude of self-compassion, and by employing tactics you will learn in this book, it is fortunately an effort immeasurably worth taking.

A necessary corollary to understanding that you’re dealing with trauma of a completely different order than you have probably faced before is understanding that this healing is going to take time. There are no quick fixes here: there couldn’t be, given our natural human aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty coupled with what are generally the lifelong roots of dysfunction that led to your family rift in the first place. In short, now’s the time to give yourself permission to go slow. You don’t have to fix or resolve anything today.

“Buried alive” is a good way of summing up the feeling of dissociation you often feel after the family rift. Being cut off from the family so often devolves into feeling cut off from something central in yourself.

“They couldn’t have hurt me more if they’d just aimed a gun at my heart and pulled the trigger. It’s like whatever world of family safety I thought I was in shattered. In a way, I feel like I was shot out of a gun, and landed somewhere, alone, terribly remote from anything I thought I knew.” Lori

You are not having a life-threatening emergency, as you might feel. You are more than likely suffering from acute stress disorder and the ability to feel hope in the midst of despair can be a long time coming.

“I feel like I’m dead. I wish I could cry or scream or something. But actually right now I don’t know what I feel. It’s like I’m wrapped up like a mummy against my feelings, like there’s some huge open wound that goes so deep and is so far gone with nerve damage that the patient doesn’t feel any pain. I’ve tried to break through this numbness with my old resolve to ‘act.’ After I couldn’t sleep last night, I decided, ridiculously, to get up early this morning and go running, thinking that it would clear my head. I could see, distantly, it was a beautiful morning, but I couldn’t feel it. As I ran, exhausted, sleepless, all I could do was replay that phone call in my head, going over every word of it, wondering what I might have said differently, scouring their invective for some clue about what had happened and why they had withdrawn their love for me so violently. I thought these things rather than felt them. Like some terrible compulsion, I went over and over and over it, and got nowhere. I swung wildly from thinking they were monsters to thinking I was a monster. Then I tried to make contact with my feelings for Oliver, but even that seemed so remote now. In the middle of the compulsive buzz in my head, I just couldn’t feel anything.

This buzz of words in my head, but no real feeling attached to them, it’s like hell. The buzz just wouldn’t let up. I tried to make how my parents had treated me square with who I thought, I guess hoped, they really were. That disjunction permeates everything in my life now, it’s like I’ve lost trust in anyone who says they love me. Even sometimes Oliver … It’s like there’s suddenly this whole new awful negative identity that has blocked everything in me I used to be so proud and happy about. When I tried to concentrate on work, it was all a blur. It’s as if I had been hacked to pieces, which had been scattered all around me, and I couldn’t imagine how to bring them all back, how to be whole again.” Jason

When the effects or memories of a trauma resurface, it’s often the psyche’s signal that the underlying wound they arise from needs to be dealt with in new ways. If we don’t tend to it, that wound can continue to toxify our reactions to life over many years to come.

In every stage of life we are challenged by new psychological tasks, and often, as we face and prepare for a major life event, whatever unresolved business we may have in our past lives rears up with particular and sometimes very disturbing force.

Landmark events typically kick up traumatic recall. The best watchword here is patience, respecting that our psyches not only often ingeniously protect themselves from too much pain at the time the trauma is inflicted, but wait for us to encounter more buried effects of that pain later, when we are strong enough to deal with it. However, when it comes up again, we really must deal with it, or its latent toxicity will continue to eat away at our lives.

What is known as the ego in psychoanalytic theory describes the area of the personality that powers our psyche, the part that tells us what to do and when to do it, the chief executive officer who operates and competes in the outer world. The strength of our ego is based on the sum power of our psychological muscle. Ego represents a group of functions that as a whole reflect overall psychological strength, the ability to exert our wills to get what we want.

In the aftermath of a family estrangement, we do not generally feel masterful or competent, which leads to an unsettling feeling of loss of control. We want solutions, and we want them now. The frustration of not being able to come to quick solutions is part of what fuels the obsessive ruminations, a feeling of being trapped in impotence that can become unbearable.

When we’re shocked, it takes us time to learn how to manage our feelings. When we can’t tolerate the strength of them, we become vulnerable not only to obsessive ruminations and thoughts, but also to intermittent stages of emotional turnoff, where (as when Jason reported the “buzz” of words in his head as well as his numbness) we don’t feel anything at all. It’s as if the psyche continually, repetitively goes over the same route of attack and retreat, again and again, despite the fact that such a swing offers no lasting solution or relief. Obsessive rumination, however, is particularly toxic. And while it’s important to acknowledge, as Jason did, that it’s a completely normal symptom in the context of a family cutoff, what, apart from tolerating it, can you do about it?

First, remember that you’re still at a stage of needing psychological first-aid. Think of yourself as in a hospital emergency room, the first task is to stop the bleeding and contain the wound. This means, of course, first acknowledging that you have a wound. But it quickly requires something else. You are already familiar with some of these resources. Recall the activities that you know from past experience will soothe you. This is the time to make the popcorn, draw the bubble bath, watch the movie, get the massage, play the game of tennis, read the novel that you know can offer at least a bit of respite. Call them psychological band-aids if you want, but if they work, use them now, as long as they don’t make the situation worse, which generally means, as long as they’re not self-destructive (such as alcohol, drugs, or overeating). Soothe yourself as you can. Think of it as spreading the blanket on the bed and fluffing up the pillow. This is preparation for the real work of acknowledgment, which is simply this: to talk until you’re blue in the face. A lot has built up inside you, and it all (or as much of it as you can tolerate) must come out.

Asked about what helps a person get over trauma, the vast majority of mental health professionals will agree that talking about it is by far the treatment of choice. But how can the talk be made productive, so that it’s not just a compulsive rehashing of “how could they?” or “why didn’t I?” Some of what you need to let out will be, in fact, the “how could they?” or “why didn’t I?” brands of reaction you’ll inevitably have. The point here isn’t to censor you, it’s to beckon you to release everything about your trauma that you’ve felt you must hold back. There are, as you’ll see in a moment, ways to encourage yourself to get beyond that blame-or-defense mode, but right now, it’s more important to focus on something else: whom you choose to let it all out to. However, a yes-man or yes-woman isn’t as helpful as someone who is equally caring but more dispassionate, even if all you want and need right now is someone to vent to.

Having a place to air even our worst worries and fears and confusions is unbelievably healing.


Healing from Family Rifts: Ten steps to finding peace after being cut off from a family member. 

by Mark Sichel

get it from Amazon

Say ‘NO’ to your child or they’ll struggle in school – Dr Amanda Gummer. 

Child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer says children who are ‘helicoptered’ by their parents tend to play up at school to get attention. 

Working with a group of primary school teachers recently, letting off steam during the first weeks of the summer holidays, I listened, appalled, as they reeled off their latest nightmare classroom dealings.

But it wasn’t horror stories of pupils jumping on desks or hurling things around that shocked me most. Far worse was the attitude – and behaviour – of the parents. And not those at the less privileged end of the spectrum, either.

No, the wild, unruly children are increasingly likely to be the progeny of so-called “helicopter” parents – those who give intensive, one-on-one attention to their child and pander to their every whim, fuelling a “little emperor” syndrome.

They are ruthlessly ambitious for their child’s future – failing to realise how badly their mollycoddling is preparing them for the compromises of real life.

Don’t believe me? Then listen to this: “My child is a genius – his bad behaviour is an outlet because you don’t challenge him intellectually.” That was the astonishing response of more than one mother confronted by exasperated teachers.

While we’ve long known this hovering parenting style can create children unable to make decisions or exhibit independence, what’s less often discussed is how aggressive and difficult the children of helicopter parents – often middle-class, professional and, to their minds, devoted to their darlings – can be at school.

Why? These children struggle in the classroom because they cannot cope with not being number one. So they play up to try to get the attention they have been raised to believe ought to be all theirs.

Worse still, these otherwise respectable parents refuse to take responsibility for the child’s actions. Behavioural problems, no matter how shocking, are down to teachers.

Mum and Dad needn’t get their hands dirty.

As a child psychologist helping professionals better understand the psychology behind how kids learn, I’m no longer surprised to see teachers frustrated to tears by the disgraceful attitudes of some pupils – and their parents.

Thanks to teachers’ diligence, the majority of children eventually settle into a world where they are no longer the star in their own solar system. But a substantial minority struggle terribly, with catastrophic effects on learning and development.

Sound dramatic? Not when you look at the latest statistics from the Department of Education, which tell us that, last year in England alone, an astonishing 35 children a day were permanently excluded from school.

And these aren’t just unruly teens: just under a fifth of those expelled were at primary school; some were as young as four.

To my mind, this startling increase can, at least partly, be put down to the linking of two facts: among these children, a great many can’t even tie their own shoelaces or recognise when they need to put on their coat.

Simultaneously, a large portion – a third of the 1,145 expelled from primary school last year – get their marching orders after physically assaulting a teacher.

Imagine: little ones so helpless they need assistance to go to the loo and put on their shoes, yet who are utterly unafraid to biff their teacher on the nose.

Here we have children who are not being given the basic life skills to look after themselves throwing their weight around in the classroom and causing mayhem. It’s a toxic combination.

As worrying is the fact that these figures are going up. The number of primary school children expelled has more than doubled over a four-year period. Meanwhile, 6,685 children at state schools in England were permanently excluded in 2015/16, up from 5,795 the year before. It’s all too easy to hide lazy parenting behind claims that your child is a genius, or has unchannelled exuberance. Regardless, one fact remains: no matter how gifted your child, if they can’t concentrate and work alongside their peers, they aren’t going to get very far in the classroom, let alone in life.

Too many of these children have never heard the word ‘no’ levelled at them at home.

Their parents may well be time-poor – perhaps feeling guilty for working long hours – so are loath to play the bad guy. Maybe they’ve bought in a little too enthusiastically to increasingly child-centric attitudes. But the reality is many youngsters misbehaving in class are being brought up with little discipline or boundaries by doting parents. Small wonder they think nothing of defying the authority of other adults.

You might think such children are just plain naughty. But I don’t believe any child is born naughty. In my opinion, bad behaviour, such as the sort I’m talking about, comes from parents.

(To be clear, I’m not talking about children with diagnosable medical conditions that have a direct impact on behaviour and/or learning styles. Schools and parents need additional support to help these children thrive.)

But I often wonder whether helicopter parents realise how damaging their attentions are.

Yes, they may believe they are providing their child with the best start in life – but such an approach can cause a wealth of behaviour problems.

For example, when a child refuses to put on their coat, if their mum or dad carries it round all afternoon ‘just in case’, rather than letting their son or daughter get cold, the child never learns to take responsibility for their bad decision. The idea that someone else will always put things right takes hold in their mind.

And how can a child be expected to behave in the dinner hall when, at home, they’re allowed to get up and down from the table as they please, never finishing a meal? The only difference is, at school, their teacher won’t be there with a chocolate bar when they’re hungry mid-afternoon.

And if a child has always had a parent clearing dangers from their path, instead of letting them take the odd tumble, of course they’ll think it’s OK to run around a classroom. Yet when they trip over a chair, they’ll blame everyone but themselves for the fact they got hurt – because no one thought to move the chair in the first place.

When it’s all spelt out like this, we can start to see why so many employers are complaining that today’s young people – the so-called millennial generation, the first to emerge from an upbringing by helicopter parents – are more unemployable than ever.

Some over-indulged children display their struggle to cope without the attention they’re used to in a different way. They can become withdrawn when they start school, which negatively impacts on their learning and relationships with classmates – and this can be as damaging in the long-term as aggression and misbehaving.

Of course, everything these parents do comes from a place of love. As a mother of two teenagers, I know how tough being a modern parent is. Most of us really are simply doing our best.

But sometimes, a parent’s best efforts are just too much. However honourable their intentions, these overly devoted parents do their offspring no favours, depriving them of the chance to learn the kind of life skills their teachers aren’t paid to impart.

Children need rules, boundaries and opportunities to feel the cold, go hungry and fall down and hurt themselves, so they can learn from their mistakes. If they are deprived of those basic life experiences at home, it makes educating them a far greater challenge for their teachers than it ever need be.

NZ Herald

Pretty much just common sense really. 

Science Explains How The Beach Can Change Our Brains And Mental Health – Elizabeth. 

We are all too well acquainted with the sense of calmness and relaxation that proceeds after spending a day at the beach.

Taking time off to be near water, regardless whether it is a lake, the sea or an ocean, makes people blissful and tranquil. Doctors have noticed this sensation as early as the 18th century, and have started prescribing a visit to the beach as a cure for many illnesses.

The proximity of water, or more precisely the smell, the sound and the vast view influence our brain and make us feel restored and full of energy.

To really paint the picture, we can say that it actually brings the whole organism in a state of peace and harmony.

Curious Magazine

How To Hack Your Brain And Learn EVERYTHING You Want! – Curious Mind Magazine. 

Many people have a hard time remembering things. Students want to boost their memory to learn faster, adults want the same to be able to finish everything they need for the day. In short, we all want a better-working memory that will help us excel in life.

Before you go to the ways you can hack your brain to remember better, you first need to know what exactly memory is and how it is created.

There are two types of memory: short-term and long-term memory. The first is temporary and it usually serves to remember things you need to do in a particular moment, such as remembering a number you need to dial. However, the moment you dial the number, you kind of forget it (in most cases).

For this information to go into the long-term memory, it needs to be repeated, worked on, or put into the brain by using some tricks.

So, how can you hack into your brain to remember stuff more easily?

Why Empaths Act Strange Around Inauthentic People

Empathetic people are those with a heightened level of sensitivity and have a radar like no one else.They can absorb others’ feelings like a sponge as if they were their own. This is not something they choose, they are born with it.

However, although this may seem like a wonderful trait to have, it is also strenuous. Envision being able to put yourself in people’s shoes all the time. All.The.Time!

When empaths are around people who are fake, or inauthentic, they can feel it. Although the person may seem quite flattering on the outside, they are hiding something on the inside and empaths can feel it.

It is not that empaths are special people, or smarter than everyone else. However, they do have the outstanding ability to read body language better than anyone else does and this makes them understand the world and people around them a lot better.

Curious Magazine

Scientists Are Attempting to Unlock the Secret Potential of the Human Brain – Philip Perry. 

Sometimes, it occurs when a person suffers a nearly fatal accident or life-threatening situation. In others, they are born with a developmental disorder, such as autism. But a slim margin of each group develop remarkable capabilities, such as being able to picture advanced mathematical figures in one’s head, have perfect recall, or to draw whole cityscapes from memory alone. This is known as savant syndrome. Of course, it’s exceedingly rare. But how does it work? And do we all hide spectacular capabilities deep within our brain?

“I noticed the light bouncing off a car window in the form of an arc, and the concept came to life. It clicked for me-­because the circle I saw was subdivided by light rays, and I realized each ray was really a representation of pi.”

He’d acquired an exceedingly rare condition. Only about 70 people in the world so far have been identified with savant syndrome. There are two ways for it to occur, either through an injury that causes brain damage or through a disorder, such as autism.


Undoing poverty’s negative effect on brain development with cash transfers – Cameron McLeod. 

An upcoming experiment into brain development and poverty by Kimberly G Noble, associate professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, asks whether poverty may affect the development, “the size, shape, and functioning,” of a child’s brain, and whether “a cash stipend to parents” would prevent this kind of damage.

Noble writes that “poverty places the young child’s brain at much greater risk of not going through the paces of normal development.” Children raised in poverty perform less well in school, are less likely to graduate from high school, and are less likely to continue on to college. Children raised in poverty are also more likely to be underemployed when adults. Sociological research and research done in the area of neuroscience has shown that a childhood spent in poverty can result in “significant differences in the size, shape and functioning” of the  brain. Can the damage done to children’s brains  be negated  by the intervention of a subsidy for brain health?

This most recent study’s fundamental difference from past efforts is that it explores what kind of effect “directly supplementing” the incomes of families will have on brain development. “Cash transfers, as opposed to counseling, child care and other services, have the potential to empower families to make the financial decisions they deem best for themselves and their children.” Noble’s hypothesis is that a “cascade of positive effects” will follow from the cash transfers, and that if proved correct, this has implications for public policy and “the potential to…affect the lives of millions of disadvantaged families with young children.”

Brain Trust, Kimberly G. Noble

  • Children who live in poverty tend to perform worse than peers in school on a bevy of different tests. They are less likely to graduate from high school and then continue on to college and are more apt to be underemployed once they enter the workforce.
  • Research that crosses neuroscience with sociology has begun to show that educational and occupational disadvantages that result from growing up poor can lead to significant differences in the size, shape and functioning of children’s brains.
  • Poverty’s potential to hijack normal brain development has led to plans for studying whether a simple intervention might reverse these injurious effects. A study now in the planning stages will explore if a modest subsidy can enhance brain health.


The goal of Dr. Noble’s research is to better characterize socioeconomic disparities in children’s cognitive and brain development. Ongoing studies in her lab address the timing of neurocognitive disparities in infancy and early childhood, as well as the particular exposures and experiences that account for these disparities, including access to material resources, richness of language exposure, parenting style and exposure to stress. Finally, she is interested in applying this work to the design of interventions that aim to target gaps in school readiness, including early literacy, math, and self-regulation skills. She is honored to be part of a national team of social scientists and neuroscientists planning the first clinical trial of poverty reduction, which aims to estimate the causal impact of income supplementation on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development in the first three years of life.

Columbia University


A short review on the link between poverty, children’s cognition and brain development, 13th March 2017

In the latest issue of the Scientific American, Kimberly Noble, associate professor in neuroscience and education, reviews her work and introduces an ambitious research project that may help understand the cause-and-effect connection between poverty and children’s brain development.

For the past 15 years, Noble and her colleagues have gathered evidence to explain how socioeconomic disparities may underlie differences in children’s cognition and brain development. In the course of their research they have found for example that children living in poverty tend to have reduced cognitive skills – including language, memory skills and cognitive control (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Wealth effect

More recently, they published evidence showing that the socio-economic status of parents (as assessed using parental education, income and occupation) can also predict children’s brain structure.

By measuring the cortical surface area of children’s brains (ie the area of the surface of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain which contains all the neurons), they found that lower family income was linked to smaller cortical surface area, especially in brain regions involved in language and cognitive control abilities (Figure 2 – in magenta).

Figure 2. A Brain on Poverty

In the same research, they also found that longer parental education was linked to increased hippocampus volume in children, a brain structure essential for memory processes.

Overall, Noble’s work adds to a growing body of research showing the negative relation between poverty and brain development and these findings may explain (at least in part) why children from poor families are less likely to obtain good grades at school, graduate from high-school or attend college.

What is less known however, is the causal mechanism underlying this relationship. As Noble describes, differences in school and neighbourhood quality, chronic stress in the family home, less nurturing parenting styles or a combination of all these factors might explain the impact of poverty on brain development and cognition.

To better understand the causal effect of poverty, Noble has teamed up with economists and developmental psychologists and together, they will soon launch a large-scale experiment or “randomised control trial”. As part of this experiment, 1000 US women from low-income backgrounds will be recruited soon after giving birth and will be followed over a three-year period. Half of the women will receive $333 per month (if they are part of the “experimental” group) and the other half will receive $20 per month (if they are part of the “control” group). Mothers and children will be monitored throughout the study, and mothers will be able to spend the money as they wish, without any constrains.

By comparing children belonging to the experimental group to those in the control group, researchers will be able to observe how increases in family income may directly benefit cognition and brain development. They will also be able to test whether the way mothers use the extra income is a relevant factor to explain these benefits.

Noble concludes that “although income may not be the only factor that determines a child’s developmental trajectory, it may be the easiest one to alter” through social policy. And given that 25% of American children and 12% of British children are affected by poverty (as reported by UNICEF in 2012), policies designed to alleviate poverty may have the capacity to reach and improve the life chances of millions of children.

NGN is looking forward to see the results of this large-scale experiment. We expect that this project, in association with other research studies, will improve our understanding of the link between poverty and child development, and will help design better interventions to support disadvantaged children.

Nature Groups


Socioeconomic inequality and children’s brain development. 

Research addresses issues at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience and public policy.

By Kimberly G. Noble, MD, PhD

Kimberly Noble, MD, PhD, is an associate professor of neuroscience and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She received her undergraduate, graduate and medical degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. As a neuroscientist and board-certified pediatrician, she studies how inequality relates to children’s cognitive and brain development. Noble’s work has been supported by several federal and foundation grants, and she was named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science. Together with a team of social scientists and neuroscientists from around the United States, she is planning the first clinical trial of poverty reduction to assess the causal impact of income on cognitive and brain development in early childhood.

Kimberley Noble website.

What can neuroscience tell us about why disadvantaged children are at risk for low achievement and poor mental health? How early in infancy does socioeconomic disadvantage leave an imprint on the developing brain, and what factors explain these links? How can we best apply this work to inform interventions? These and other questions are the focus of the research my colleagues and I have been addressing for the last several years.

What is socioeconomic status and why is it of interest to neuroscientists?

The developing human brain is remarkably malleable to experience. Of course, a child’s experience varies tremendously based on his or her family’s circumstances (McLoyd, 1998). And so, as neuroscientists, we can use family circumstance as a lens through which to better understand how experience relates to brain development.

Family socioeconomic status, or SES, is typically considered to include parental educational attainment, occupational prestige and income (McLoyd, 1998); subjective social status, or where one sees oneself on the social hierarchy, may also be taken into account (Adler, Epel, Castellazzo & Ickovics, 2000). A large literature has established that disparities in income and human capital are associated with substantial differences in children’s learning and school performance. For example, socioeconomic differences are observed across a range of important cognitive and achievement measures for children and adolescents, including IQ, literacy, achievement test scores and high school graduation rates (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). These differences in achievement in turn result in dramatic differences in adult economic well-being and labor market success.

However, although outcomes such as school success are clearly critical for understanding disparities in development and cognition, they tell us little about the underlying neural mechanisms that lead to these differences. Distinct brain circuits support discrete cognitive skills, and differentiating between underlying neural substrates may point to different causal pathways and approaches for intervention (Farah et al., 2006; Hackman & Farah, 2009; Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007; Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010). Studies that have used a neurocognitive framework to investigate disparities have documented that children and adolescents from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to perform worse than their more advantaged peers on several domains, most notably in language, memory, self-regulation and socio-emotional processing (Hackman & Farah, 2009; Hackman, Farah, & Meaney, 2010; Noble et al., 2007; Noble, Norman, & Farah, 2005; Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).

Family socioeconomic circumstance and children’s brain structure

More recently, we and other neuroscientists have extended this line of research to examine how family socioeconomic circumstances relate to differences in the structure of the brain itself. For example, in the largest study of its kind to date, we analyzed the brain structure of 1099 children and adolescents recruited from socioeconomically diverse homes from ten sites across the United States (Noble, Houston et al., 2015). We were specifically interested in the structure of the cerebral cortex, or the outer layer of brain cells that does most of the cognitive “heavy lifting.” We found that both parental educational attainment and family income accounted for differences in the surface area, or size of the “nooks and crannies” of the cerebral cortex. These associations were found across much of the brain, but were particularly pronounced in areas that support language and self-regulation — two of the very skills that have been repeatedly documented to show large differences along socioeconomic lines.

Several points about these findings are worth noting. First, genetic ancestry, or the proportion of ancestral descent for each of six major continental populations, was held constant in the analyses. Thus, although race and SES tend to be confounded in the U.S., we can say that the socioeconomic disparities in brain structure that we observed were independent of genetically-defined race. Second, we observed dramatic individual differences, or variation from person to person. That is, there were many children and adolescents from disadvantaged homes who had larger cortical surface areas, and many children from more advantaged homes who had smaller surface areas. This means that our research team could in no way accurately predict a child’s brain size simply by knowing his or her family income alone. Finally, the relationship between family income and surface area was nonlinear, such that the steepest gradient was seen at the lowest end of the income spectrum. That is, dollar for dollar, differences in family income were associated with proportionately greater differences in brain structure among the most disadvantaged families.

More recently, we also examined the thickness of the cerebral cortex in the same sample (Piccolo, et al., 2016). In general, as we get older, our cortices tend to get thinner. Specifically, cortical thickness decreases rapidly in childhood and early adolescence, followed by a more gradual thinning, and ultimately plateauing in early- to mid-adulthood (Raznahan et al., 2011; Schnack et al., 2014; Sowell et al., 2003). Our work suggests that family socioeconomic circumstance may moderate this trajectory. 

Specifically, at lower levels of family SES, we observed relatively steep age-related decreases in cortical thickness earlier in childhood, and subsequent leveling off during adolescence. In contrast, at higher levels of family SES, we observed more gradual age-related reductions in cortical thickness through at least late adolescence. We speculated that these findings may reflect an abbreviated period of cortical thinning in lower SES environments, relative to a more prolonged period of cortical thinning in higher SES environments. It is possible that socioeconomic disadvantage is a proxy for experiences that narrow the sensitive period, or time window for certain aspects of brain development that are malleable to environmental influences, thereby accelerating maturation (Tottenham, 2015).

Are these socioeconomic differences in brain structure clinically meaningful? Early work would suggest so. In our work, we have found that differences in cortical surface area partially accounted for links between family income and children’s executive function skills (Noble, Houston et al., 2015). Independent work in other labs has suggested that differences in brain structure may account for between 15 and 44 percent of the family income-related achievement gap in adolescence (Hair, Hanson, Wolfe & Pollak, 2015; Mackey et al., 2015). This line of research is still in its infancy, however, and several outstanding questions remain to be addressed.

How early are socioeconomic disparities in brain development detectable?

By the start of school, it is apparent that dramatic socioeconomic disparities in children’s cognitive functioning are already evident, and indeed, several studies have found that socioeconomic disparities in language (Fernald, Marchman & Weisleder, 2013; Noble, Engelhardt et al., 2015; Rowe & Goldin-Meadow, 2009) and memory (Noble, Engelhardt et al., 2015) are already present by the second year of life. But methodologies that assess brain function or structure may be more sensitive to differences than are tests of behavior. This raises the question of just how early we can detect socioeconomic disparities in the structure or function of children’s brains.

 One group reported socioeconomic differences in resting electroencephalogram (EEG) activity — which indexes electrical activity of the brain as measured at the scalp — as early as 6–9 months of age (Tomalski et al., 2013). Recent work by our group, however, found no correlation between SES and the same EEG measures within the first four days following birth (Brito, Fifer, Myers, Elliott & Noble, 2016), raising the possibility that some of these differences in brain function may emerge in part as a result of early differences in postnatal experience. Of course, a longitudinal study assessing both the prenatal and postnatal environments would be necessary to formally test this hypothesis. Furthermore, another group recently reported that, among a group of African-American, female infants imaged at 5 weeks of age, socioeconomic disadvantage was associated with smaller cortical and deep gray matter volumes (Betancourt et al., 2015). It is thus also likely that at least some socioeconomic differences in brain development are the result of socioeconomic differences in the prenatal environment (e.g., maternal diet, stress) and/or genetic differences.

Disentangling links among socioeconomic disparities, modifiable experiences and brain development represents a clear priority for future research. Are the associations between SES and brain development the result of differences in experiences that can serve as the targets of intervention, such as differences in nutrition, housing and neighborhood quality, parenting style, family stress and/or education? Certainly, the preponderance of social science evidence would suggest that such differences in experience are likely to account at least in part for differences in child and adolescent development (Duncan & Magnuson, 2012). However, few studies have directly examined links among SES, experience and the brain (Luby et al., 2013). In my lab, we are actively focusing on these issues, with specific interest in how chronic stress and the home language environment may, in part, explain our findings.

How can this work inform interventions?

Quite a few interventions aim to reduce socioeconomic disparities in children’s achievement. Whether school-based or home-based, many are quite effective, though frequently face challenges: High-quality interventions are expensive, difficult to scale up and often suffer from “fadeout,” or the phenomenon whereby the positive effects of the intervention dwindle with time once children are no longer receiving services.

What about the effects of directly supplementing family income? Rather than providing services, such “cash transfer“ interventions have the potential to empower families to make the financial decisions they deem best for themselves and their children. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies in the social sciences, both domestically and in the developing world, have suggested the promise of direct income supplementation (Duncan & Magnuson, 2012).

To date, linkages between poverty and brain development have been entirely correlational in nature; the field of neuroscience is silent on the causal connections between poverty and brain development. As such, I am pleased to be part of a team of social scientists and neuroscientists who are currently planning and raising funds to launch the first-ever randomized experiment testing the causal connections between poverty reduction and brain development.

The ambition of this study is large, though the premise is simple. We plan to recruit 1,000 low-income U.S. mothers at the time of their child’s birth. Mothers will be randomized to receive a large monthly income supplement or a nominal monthly income supplement. Families will be tracked longitudinally to definitively assess the causal impact of this unconditional cash transfer on cognitive and brain development in the first three years following birth, when we believe the developing brain is most malleable to experience.

We hypothesize that increased family income will trigger a cascade of positive effects throughout the family system. As a result, across development, children will be better positioned to learn foundational skills. If our hypotheses are borne out, this proposed randomized trial has the potential to inform social policies that affect the lives of millions of disadvantaged families with young children. While income may not be the only or even the most important factor in determining children’s developmental trajectories, it may be the most manipulable from a policy perspective.

American Psychological Association