Inequality and the Brain: Understanding a Global Crisis

Adrienne Kinman

Over half (56%) of the world’s population are classified as low income, surviving on $2-10 per day, according to a report by the Pew Research Center (Pew Research Center, 2015). This statistic should be shocking, considering that many of us spend more on our morning latte-muffin combo. Inequality surrounding quality of life, access to medical care, food, water, and economic prosperity is profound. This has lead researchers to ask critical questions regarding the impact of poverty on cognitive development.

Recently, research regarding how poverty affects the brain has gained increased attention in both academia and the media. Researchers, including Kimberly Noble at Columbia University, have found that low socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with significant differences in the size, shape and functioning of children’s brains (Noble, 2017). What is most enticing about the series of studies carried out by Noble and colleagues is that they do not apply standard, and often culturally biased measures of achievement to measure intelligence, making the results applicable outside the borders of the United States. Instead, they measure different brain circuits involved in processing distinct cognitive skills that are important for academic and life achievement (Noble, 2017). Trends that have been discovered through these investigative measures suggest that children from low SES homes consistently score lower on tasks that tested their language, memory and self-control skills.

Further structural differences in the brain were also observed between low and high SES children. A number of independent research groups have reported that children from high SES homes have a significantly larger hippocampus, which is a brain structure critical for memory (Noble, et al., 2012; Hanson, Chandra, Wolfe, & Pollak, 2011; Luby, et al., 2013). Noble and colleagues also reported a decrease in cerebral surface area in lower SES children, which was most pronounced in areas that govern language, impulse control and self-regulation (Noble, 2017). A particularly striking finding is that the association between family income and cerebral surface area was strongest at the lowest end of the spectrum for income, meaning that household income could be a very strong mediating factor in brain development.

These results demonstrate the profound and specific impacts of poverty on human development. Noble and colleagues’ newest research aims to investigate this through providing 1000 low-income women in the U.S. a monthly income supplement of either $20 or $335, and comparing the cognitive development of children in these groups (Noble, 2017). The group hypothesizes is that an increased family income of 335$ will allow children to better develop critical cognitive skills and test comparably to children at higher income levels (Noble, 2017). It is important to remember that this research is not generalizable to specific individuals but rather a trend between poverty and brain structure and function that could help us understand this disparity and address it in effective, powerful ways. Research that demonstrates the difference that social policies can have in tangible, powerful ways such as brain development could be strong tools in policy decisions. Should the group’s hypothesis be confirmed, the results hold the potential to shape social policies in order to improve the cognitive development of millions of disadvantaged children.

This research holds great potential to influence our social policies, early childhood education programs, and welfare procedures. The integration of research into policy may help form a more productive, effective and targeted path to reducing the cyclic nature of poverty and its detrimental impacts.


Adrienne is a U3 psychology student with minors in biology and behavioural science. She is drawn by the multidisciplinary nature of global health and its ability to pull from many fields to solve vast and often borderless problems. Her interests include emphasizing on improved treatments for both neurological and mental disorders.




Works Cited

Hanson, J., Chandra, A., Wolfe, B., & Pollak, S. (2011). Association between income and the hippocampus. PLOS one.

Luby, J., Belden, A., Botteron, K., Marrus, N., Harms, M., Babb, C., . . . Barch, D. (2013). The effects of poverty on childhood brain development: the mediating effect of caregiving and stressful life events. JAMA Pediatrics, 1135-42.

Noble, K. G. (2017). Brain Trust: poverty may affect the size, shape and functioning of a young child's brain. Would a cash stipend to parents help prevent harm? Scientific American, 44-49.

Noble, K. G., Grieve, S. M., Korgaonkar, M. S., Engelhardt, L. E., Griffith, E. Y., Williams, L. M., & Brickman, A. M. (2012). Hippocampal volume varies with educational attainment across the life span. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience , 307.

Pew Research Center. (2015, 08 13). World Population by Income: How Many Live on How Much and Where. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: GLobal Attitudes & Trends :