Is This the Most Misleading Image in Neuroscience?

One image has had an incalculable effect on policy around the world, but is it even remotely representative of what happens in the real world? Children who have been neglected can look forward to a more positive outlook than this image would suggest.

The CT scans above purport to show the difference between two three-year-old children, one that was loved by its mother and another that suffered neglect. The image has been used to support the claim that children's brains are "irrevocably hardwired" in the first few years of life, and to justify early intervention programmes and investment in early years education. However, along with these noble goals comes a dark side, the implication that children who have been neglected or who have grown up in poverty are permanently damaged, beyond help after a critical time period has expired. This proposition at the very least has been greatly overplayed. The idea risks reinforcing unhelpful and unjustified attitudes towards children who have come from deprived backgrounds and has even been used to argue against investment in children later in life and to justify questionable decisions in the area of child protection.

In an article for the Guardian, Zoe Williams quotes Val Gillies, a researcher in social policy at South Bank University:

"That illustration of the walnut brain is from a paper by Bruce Perry. There are no details given of the case histories of those kids. We don't know what 'normal' was. We don't know what 'extreme neglect' was. We don't even have a scale on that image. It's had the most powerful impact, but I've never seen another image like that. When people say, 'I've seen a brain scan showing what neglect does to the brain', that's the image they're talking about."

As Williams explains: "Immediately, there are a few things wrong with this: with no details on the case study, except for the fact that "extreme neglect" meant life in a Romanian orphanage, we could be dealing with anything, from the effects of malnutrition to a disability. But even without the drama of the image, the use of these extreme populations is misleading." In an article in the New York Times, Anna North looks at how the adoption of such false assumptions about neuroscience by policy makers in the US could do more harm than good.

The discussion couldn't help but remind me of an experiment that demonstrated the powerful effects implicit beliefs about our abilities can have on our performance. Researchers gave black school children a test and asked them to report their race either before or after taking the test. The children who reported their race before taking the test did worse than the children who were asked the same question afterwards. Similarly, undergraduates at university performed worse on a test if they were reminded that they graduated from a high school that was poorly represented at the university. These experiments make up part of a large body of evidence on the phenomenon of stereotype threat - an effect that has been repeatedly replicated, in which people conform to the negative stereotypes of their social group, creating a self fulfilling prophesy.

Of course it is important to invest time, money and resources in the first three years of human life, we don't need neuroscience to tell us that. But we shouldn't by any means be under the illusion that after this point a child's  trajectory is permanently set in stone, this assumption which has become so pernicious, is not just dangerous, it is simply wrong.

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Image Credit: Bruce Perry


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