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[xmca] Orphanages to Ghettos

It turns out that a couple of years ago I wrote a review of a book that
contained the work of Nelson on Roumainian
orphans. Review is attached. The easy equation of the conditions of
isolated orphans and children living in poverty was around when LCHC
started and its not at all nice to see it come around again.

But better to remember history, even if you have to repeat it. That way you
have reminders of what you were supposed to


Biology and Culture: A Two-Way Street of Causation
PsycCRITIQUES	February 28, 2007 Vol. 52 (9), Article 9
A review of

*Lifespan Development and the Brain: The Perspective of Biocultural
by Paul B. Baltes, Patricia A. Reuter-Lorenz, and Frank Rösler (Eds.)

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 444 pp. ISBN
978-0-521-84494-9. $90.00

Reviewed by
Michael Cole

More than six decades ago, developmental psychologist Arnold Gesell (1945, p.
358) declared that “Neither physical nor cultural environment contains
any architectonic arrangements like the [biological] mechanisms of
growth. Culture accumulates; it does not grow. The glove goes on the
hand; the hand determines the glove.” It is difficult to imagine a
clearer statement of the unidirectional causal relation between
phylogeny and culture.

Thirty years later, anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973), surveying extant
knowledge of human origins in which it appeared that manifestations of
culture were evident in the phylogenetic record for millions of years,
argued for the constitutive role of culture in the biological
composition of modern humans:

Man's nervous system does not merely enable him to acquire culture, it
positively demands that he do so if it is going to function at all.
Rather than culture acting only to supplement, develop, and extend
organically based capacities logically and genetically prior to it, it
would seem to be ingredient to those capacities themselves. A
cultureless human being would probably turn out to be not an
intrinsically talented, though unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless
and consequently unworkable monstrosity. (p. 68)

The book, Lifespan Development and the Brain: The Perspective of Biocultural
Co-Constructivism, provides a plethora of data to support Geertz's
prescient manifesto. The contributors dub this view “biocultural
co-constructivism,” the view, in their words, that “all entities
involved in the development of brain, behavior, and culture are deeply
interwoven and influence each other in cumulative ways” (p. 13). A
second message, which has been the major theme of Paul Baltes's work
over many decades, is that development does not stop following puberty
but continues for as many decades more that the person continues to live.

Several key ideas and areas of research are brought together in this volume in
support of the editors' central theses. These include the following:

   1. The pioneering work of Hebb on the increased behavior capacities
      that are induced when laboratory rats are freed from their cages
      to engage with rich and challenging environments and Mark
      Rosenzweig and his colleagues' subsequent evidence that such
      environmentally induced behavioral capacities have their
      counterparts in neural growth characterized by increased synaptic
      connections and other biological indicators of enhanced neuronal
      functioning (summarized in Rosenzweig & Bennett, 1996).
   2. A variety of research on neurogenesis, including the now-familiar
      evidence that the developing brain produces an overabundance of
      neurons that are selectively pared away or consolidated depending
      on later experiences and new evidence of neurogenesis and changes
      in the brain's microanatomy far into adulthood and possibly into
      old age.
   3. A rapidly expanding body of research of neuronal plasticity and
      the consequent recognition of the potential multifunctionality of
      brain regions exhibited in cases, such as blindness or deafness in
      which brain areas deprived of sensory input from the
      evolutionarily typical sources reorganize to become additional
      resources to support and amplify remaining capacities (as when the
      visual cortex begins to respond to auditory input among the
      congenitally blind).
   4. A variety of research demonstrating that specific cultural
      practices (e.g., learning to read in school, driving a taxi for
      several years in London) are associated with measurable
      differences in the anatomical structure or functioning of specific
      brain regions known to be implicated in the associated form of

The book provides excellent summaries of specific areas of research
contributing to the overall thesis of lifespan biocultural
co-constructivism. I found that one of the most interesting aspects of
this book is the evidence that the field still faces serious challenges
in coming to grips with the problem of specifying in appropriate detail
the environmental side of the bidirectional process and, when dealing
with humans, with specifying what is meant by a cultural influence. This
difficulty shows up in different ways in different chapters.

With respect to research on the environmental impact on brain development in
rats, for example, Charles Nelson notes that the term /enrichment/ is a
relative one, but then goes on to write that in the well-known studies
of enriched (more complex) environments, the experimental environments
are enriched “relative to the typical environments in which most rats
live” (p. 72). In fact, the enriched environments studied in the
laboratory are almost certainly less complex than the environments that
a vast majority of the world's rats live in outside of scientists'
laboratories, and their behavior in such environments is sufficiently
intelligent to defy the best efforts of exterminators from New York to
Mumbai to eradicate them.

This same difficulty in situating environmental effects vis-à-vis behavioral
(and presumably brain) processes appears again when Nelson comments that
the enriched environments of rats are “all encompassing” whereas
interventions with human children such as Head Start are not all
encompassing so that “specific, narrow, effects, such as an increase in
IQ” (p. 73) cannot be reasonably expected—all the more so because such
children spend more time at home than at school, “and thus, the
deprivation effects inherent in the home environment may eventually
overwhelm the effects of early enrichment [in school]” (p. 73). To those
engaged in the debates about heritability of /g/ and the many
anthropologists who have documented the social complexity of the home
life of children attending Head Start programs, these kinds of judgments
are likely to seem improbable. (Which in no way detracts from the great
importance of the work by Nelson and his colleagues on the effects of
being raised in a Rumanian orphanage, which promises to shed important
light on brain-experience relationships.)

Other chapters, each excellent in their review of their respective topics,
display similar uncertainties when it comes to explaining what is
specifically cultural about clear experience-expectant and
experience-dependent effects on brain development and just how specific
such cultural effects might be. For example, Ptito and Desgents's
well-crafted review of ways in which brain architecture changes to adapt
to or compensate for disrupted sensory input or the catastrophic
condition of hemispherectomy underlines the evidence that the spared
hemisphere “plays a role in the mediation of many residual abilities,
such as motor and sensory (vision and somesthesis) behaviors” (p. 129).
But extant evidence, such as Antonio Battro's (2000) study of a child
who underwent a hemispherectomy at the age of 3, indicates not only that
vision and somesthesis can be supported by the remaining hemisphere but
that such higher, clearly culturally mediated functions such as
literacy, numeracy, and all-but-normal language development can be
induced in the remaining hemisphere given a proper culturally organized
regime of enriched experience.

The idea that dense, culturally organized experience can produce neural
specialization is also supported by two chapters devoted to the impact
of reading, writing, and arithmetic instruction on brain processes. As
researchers in this area, following Alexander Luria, point out, literacy
and numeracy are recent developments on an evolutionary scale and
require years of systematic instruction. Current evidence seems
compelling, however, that as a result of such instruction, there is, in
Polk and Hamilton's phraseology, “the development of new functional
brain areas that perform functions acquired through experience” (p.
195). A similar conclusion is supported by Petersson and Reis's chapter
comparing responses to verbal tasks of middle-aged women who did or did
not attend school as youngsters decades earlier.

An important task confronting this line of research is to determine in more
detail the generality of the observed effects: Do the effects of
learning to read and write extend beyond the development of highly
specialized systems for analyzing words (or numbers?). Or, as is the
case with acquisition of expertise in use of the abacus, are the effects
highly specific to their corresponding tasks? Some degree of generality
is to be expected at the behavioral level, if only because reading,
writing, and numeracy are components of a variety of cultural practices
to which they can make important adaptive contributions (children who
master calculation on an abacus also perform better on some arithmetic
problem-solving tasks because the calculational part of the task has
been automated so that they can devote less attention to it). Something
of the same effect ought to be expected in relation to the brain
consequences of literacy and numeracy, but so far the evidence is lacking.

In this regard I found especially interesting Vitouch's evidence that high
levels of musical training may result not only in changes in brain
architecture but also in changes with wide-ranging effects in the domain
of music. It is not only that skilled violin players show changed
architecture for brain regions subsuming the fingers of the right (not
the left) hand, but also that people who have undergone extensive
musical training may well undergo generalized changes in aesthetic
experience (associated with music, to be sure).

These are only a few of the fascinating phenomena and important challenges to
psychological science presented in this important book. /Lifespan
Development and the Brain/ should be required reading for a broad range
of psychologists well beyond the devotees of life-span developmental
psychology or the study of the causal mechanisms of brain-behavior
relationships. It is perhaps the first book of its kind to deliver on
the longstanding promise that by combining the study of phylogeny with
the careful study of the organization of people's activities in everyday
life, psychology actually overcomes the false dichotomy of nature versus
nurture in fact as well as in words.



Battro, A. M. (2000). /Half a brain is enough./ New York: Cambridge
University Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). /The interpretation of cultures./ New York: Basic Books.

Gesell, A. (1945). /The embryology of behavior./ New York: Harper & Row.

Rosenzweig, M. R., & Bennett, E. L. (1996). Psychobiology of plasticity:
Effects of training and experience on brain and behavior. /Behavioral
Brain Research/, /78/, 57-65.


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