Children of low socioeconomic status work harder to filter out irrelevant environmental information than those from a high-income background because of learned differences in what they pay attention to, according to new research published in the open access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Hey, look! More evidence that severe income inequality objectively handicaps poorer children. This is from the recent EurekAlert article, Family's economic situation influences brain function in children. It turns out, while wealthier kids' brains more actively respond to information they need to respond to positively, seeking opportunities, poorer kids' brains constantly scan for things to go wrong, and respond when they know they have to, when there doesn't seem to be any threat.
There were no significant differences between the two groups in the accuracy or reaction time during the task. The researchers did, however, observe differences in brain wave patterns between the two groups. Higher SES children exhibited far larger theta waves in response to sounds they attended to than to than those they should have ignored. In the lower SES children, however, this pattern was reversed – the theta waves evoked by the unattended sounds were much larger than those for the attended sounds.
The findings suggest that lower SES children have to exert more cognitive control to avoid attending to irrelevant stimuli than higher SES children, and that doing so therefore requires more mental effort. This may be because they live in more threatening environments, in which it might be advantageous to pay attention to a broad range of environmental stimuli which are not unambiguous distractions, and may turn out to be important for survival.
This is good science, but more importantly, isn't it kind of horrifying that some classes of American children are in such a more threatening environment that their brains end up wired completely differently?