Thursday, May 17, 2012

Essay on Intelligence

Genetic and Environmental Influences on Intelligence

For the purposes of this assignment, article titled “Malnutrition, Poverty and Intellectual Development” by Larry Brown, director of the Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy at Tufts University, and Ernesto Pollitt, professor of human development in the department of pediatrics at the School of Medicine at the University of California, was selected. The article presents research into environmental influences on intelligence and argues that their importance has been underestimated to date. During the previous decades, the link between poor cognitive development and malnutrition was recognized, yet inadequate diet was considered to cause permanent structural damage to the brain. Brown & Pollitt (1996) call this view “the main-effect model” and criticize it as simplistic. Adherents of this outdated view believe malnutrition can produce harmful irreversible effects on children’s brain during the first two years of their life, when the brain is being formed. The authors of the article refer to findings which demonstrate that nutrition can have impact on intelligence throughout entire childhood and that negative effects of poor diet in the first two years of life can be reversed.

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One way in which malnutrition can affect intelligence is through its influence on child’s energy levels and peer interactions. By virtue of being less mobile, undernourished children encounter a problem of reduced interaction with other people and with their surroundings. This may in turn affect their cognitive development in a negative way. This was first discovered by Levitsky and Barnes in the 1970s: having studied rodents, they found out that malnourished animals underperformed on tests of mental ability because, lacking energy, they withdrew from contact with their peers and objects in their environment. Furthermore, undernourished children tend to be coddled by their parents, which again prevents them from exploring their surroundings and coping with a variety of attendant learning challenges. Also, factors such as income, education and other aspects of the environment have an effect on children’s intelligence.

To provide empirical evidence for the fact that malnutrition has palpable effects on intelligence, the authors cite the results of a broad-scale eight-year study of children in Guatemala. Children were given two types of nutrition supplement, one with higher protein content, and reported significant health gains. In a follow-up study eleven years later effects of better nutrition on long-term intellectual development were measured. Children who were given nutrition supplements performed better than their peers on literacy, vocabulary and reading comprehension tests, general knowledge exams, arithmetic tests and nonverbal intelligence tests. However, education and economic status, operationalized as house quality, father’s occupation and mother’s education, were discovered to have a moderating effect on the relationship between nutrition and intelligence.

While the article does not call into question the existence of genetic factors influencing intelligence, its main thesis is that environmental factors affect cognitive development in more ways than thought previously. This discovery has numerous practical implications: from nutrition programs in developing countries to initiatives aimed at supporting achievement among underprivileged children in developed countries, many policies are based on recognition that environment plays an important role in intellectual development.
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