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The New Science of Babies and Brains

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series further exploring The Two Year Window,” my feature story on babies, the brain, and poverty that appears in the new issue of TNR. Click here to access all of the supplemental material.

Kids who grow up amid adversity, particularly the kind associated with poverty, are more likely to have trouble in school, to fare more poorly in the workforce, and to engage in a variety of behaviors that will be destructive to themselves or to others. But why is that?

For generations, developmental psychologists and sociologists couldn’t answer that question definitely. Now it looks like they can. (Or at least come pretty close to it.)

In the last decade or so, a scientific revolution has taken place – thanks to new cooperation across academic disciplines, the development of new imaging technologies, and a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe that allowed scientists to perform the kind of experiment they could never, ethically, perform on their own initiative.

The result has been a new understanding of how the human brain develops – and the realization that the very first two years of life are particularly critical period of development. During that time, exposure to abuse or neglect can cause long-term, physiological damage to the brain – the kind that can be very difficult, in some cases impossible, to repair.

The story of how this science came together and what it teaches us about the fight against poverty is the subject of my new cover article, "The Two Year Window," which appears on TNR’s home page today. It’s based on months of research and actually dates back to a conversation I had a little over two years ago, when I happened to meet a woman named Diana Rauner.

Rauner runs a Chicago-based non-profit agency called the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which uses the new science of infant brain development to craft interventions that will help at-risk youth. Among the programs’ most intriguing and promising initiatives is a program that offers home visiting to teen mothers, starting when they are pregnant.

The evidence suggests that such programs, when implemented correctly, can have enormous impact. Science may be shining light on a major social problem, but it's also illuminating a way to help solve it.

The federal government already supports home visiting, to a limited extent. In fact, a provision of the Affordable Care Act vastly expands the existing funding, in no small part because the Obama Administration became aware of its virtues. But Republicans have targeted that fund for elimination. In the meantime, the funding squeeze on states is causing cutbacks to the agencies that monitor day care and look out for child welfare. Illinois, for example, just cut funding (again) for a program providing quality early childhood care to at-risk populations.

The article itself is available only to subscribers. So if you want to read it, you’ll have to subscribe. I think it’s worthwhile – not just for this article, obviously, but for all of the great journalism TNR produces.