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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 2nd September 2016 > THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON ‘POOR’

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON ‘POOR’

GROWING UP IN POVERTY DOESN’T JUST CHANGE THE WAY YOU SEE THE WORLD. IT CHANGES YOUR BRAIN

HE VIDEO tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Pakistan who at 15 survived being shot in the head by the Taliban while riding a bus in 2012. “I want to get my education, and I want to become a doctor,” she says, adding that the Taliban throw acid on some people’s faces and kill others, but “they cannot stop me.”

A 15-year-old boy watching the clip on a laptop inside the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute seems unmoved by Yousafzai’s story—his face is blank, his shoulders slumped. An interviewer asks how it makes him feel.

He shrugs: “I don’t know.” Nothing. The researcher moves on, asking what kind of person he hopes to be when he grows up.

“Nice,” he says.

“Do you want to go to college?” “Yeah.” “Do you have plans after college?” “I haven’t thought about it.” “What kind of job do you want?” “I haven’t thought about it.” He is one of the 67 low-income teens USC neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has been tracking in a FIve-year study designed to understand how culture, family relationships, exposure to violence and other factors shape the human mind. Test subjects from throughout Southern California watch 40 video clips, each depicting a different true story told by the person who lived it. Some stories—like Yousafzai’s—were chosen because they are heart-tugging and inspirational. The teenagers watch parts of the clips again while inside a machine, and their brain responses are recorded. Two years later, they are called back to the Brain and Creativity Lab, a hybrid learning center and campus innovation hub with an MRI-scanning lab, meeting offices, modern art and photography galleries, as well as a performance hall that offers literary readings, scientific presentations and concerts featuring Yo-Yo Ma. The testing process is repeated to track changes over time.

Early results show a troubling trend: Kids who grow up with violence as a backdrop in their lives don’t show much emotion in their interview responses and, based on MRI scans, have weaker neural connections and less interaction in parts of the brain involved in awareness, judgment, and ethical and emotional processing.

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