Book learnin’ saves community

As our community continues to struggle with so many problems — violent crime and economic malaise chief among them — a pair of studies bear our deep consideration. Perhaps paradoxically, the research isn’t about crime fighting, taxes or business incubation. It’s about reading.

If we take as our starting point that children are born as a “blank slate,” then we must acknowledge that criminals are “made” not born. While some factors may help lead individuals astray, we should be more concerned about the ways in which children are brought up. Neuroscientist Henry Rao and his coauthors observe: “It is widely accepted that individual differences in cognition, emotion and personality result from a combination of genetic and experiential influences on brain development. Although experience may affect human brain structure and function throughout the entire life span.”

In other words, experience, particularly early experiences make an indelible and life course shaping imprint on children. As Rao et al., go on to state: “These findings indicate that variation in normal childhood experience is associated with differences in brain morphology, and hippocampal volume is specifically associated with early parental nurturance. Our results provide neuroimaging evidence supporting the important role of warm parental care during early childhood for brain maturation.”

Again to paraphrase, warm early parenting is important to the development of brain function. This should come as little surprise, particularly as we watch so many of our community’s children being raised by the “streets.”

A second study, conducted by a subset of scientists on Rao’s project, Brian Avants and Marth Farah, flesh out this connection a little more fully. Avants and Farah narrow the previous findings with the observation that early reading is especially important to the development of young minds. If just 10 children’s books are available to a child at 4, a part of their brain involved in language and thought matures more quickly by the age of 18 or 19. Access to educational toys and trips to the zoo and amusement parks also helps.

To the contrary, if introduced at the age of 8, these books and treats seem to have little impact on the brain, suggesting the age of 4 is a critical time in its development.

The researchers visited the homes of 64 children whose parents had a similar socio-economic status, when they were aged 4 and again aged 8. They noted things such as access to books and toys. About 15 years after the first visit, the children underwent brain scans. These showed that in children who had access to books and educational toys and went on trips at the age of 4, parts of the brain were thinner – which is a good thing in terms of development. However, in children who did not have access to books and educational toys and did take trips around the age of 4, several parts of the brain were thicker and the teenagers did poorer on tests of language comprehension.

So how does all this bear on local issues? According to the most recent U.S. Census, almost 40 percent of all Pine Bluff children live below the poverty line. Poorer households tend to have lessened access to things like books and educational outings. Moreover, poorer households tend to move much more frequently which also undermines educational outcomes. With the high relative proportion of local residents who rent their homes rather than owning them, this trend toward higher rates of moving is magnified.

With this constellation of retarding influences, many of our local children are simply not getting the environmental stimulation they need for stable, higher-functioning lives. These same children grow up only to have reduced job opportunities, higher rates of involvement with crime, higher rates of substance abuse problems, poorer health outcomes — and, not surprisingly, a much higher likelihood of being poor themselves — thus perpetuating the ugly cycle of crime and poverty.