2. Discuss how social and environmental variables
may affect cognitive development
Cognitive development is affected by a number of social and environmental
variables that interact with the childís genetic inheritance in complex ways
that are not yet fully understood. Stimulation, adequate nutrition, and
parental nurturance are important factors in brain development and therefore
also in developing cognitive competence.
A relevant social variable could be socioeconomic status (SES), i.e. family
income and educational level). Adequate parenting and healthy nutrition
facilitates cognitive development.
Relevant environmental variables influencing cognitive development are, for
example, access to stimulating toys and good schools. Living in a polluted
environment may affect brain development negatively.
SES is a total
measure of a personís social and economic position based on income, education,
and occupation. SES has been found to correlate with parenting (social variable)
and environmental enrichment (environmental variable). Farah et al. (2005) found
that low SES children performed worse on all tests of cognitive performance
compared to middle SES children.
Findings from neuroscientists show that children growing up in very poor
families experience high levels of stress and this could impair brain
development and general cognitive functioning.
Krugman (2008) argued that children born to poor parents (low SES) have a
50% chance of remaining in lifelong poverty because the brains of poor
children do not develop optimally and they therefore miss social and
One effect of poverty is chronic malnourishment, which is linked to less
activity and interest in learning. Malnutrition is associated with impaired
or delayed brain development. A number of cognitive deficits have been
reported in malnourished children.
Bhoomika et al. (2008) studied the effect of malnutrition on cognitive
performance in a sample of 20 Indian children in two age groups, one aged
from five to seven and another aged between eight and ten. The data was
compared to those in a control group. Malnourished children in both age
groups scored lover in tests of attention, working memory, and visuo spatial
tasks. Older children showed less cognitive impairment, which suggests that
the effects of malnutrition on cognitive competence may result in delayed
cognitive development during childhood but it is not a permanent generalized
suggests that there is a specific relationship between early experience and
brain development. Research showed that manipulating environmental variables,
such as toys and other animals to play with, influenced the number of neurons as
well as the animalís behavior (see Rosenzweig Bennet). Animal research has also
demonstrated that stress (e.g. due to maternal separation) interferes with
normal brain development. This kind of research cannot take place using humans
for ethical reasons.
It is perhaps not
possible to generalize directly to humans from animal research but it is
possible to measure some of the same naturally occurring variables in human
experiences (e.g. neglect and institutionalization) known to be related to
Farah et al. (2008)
To investigate the relationship between environmental stimulation and parental
nurturance on cognitive development.
This was a longitudinal design with 110 African-American middle-school
children (mean age 11.8 years). Children were recruited at birth and
evaluated at age four and eight years in the home.
Interviews and observational checklists were used to measure environmental
stimulation (e.g. variety of experience, encouragement to learn colors',
music, and art) and parental nurturance (e.g. warmth and affection,
emotional and verbal responsively, and paternal involvement).
The researchers also performed cognitive tests on language and memory in the
was a positive correlation between environmental stimulation and language
development. Age was also a factor. There was also a positive correlation
between parental nurturance and long-term memory performance.
The data shows the importance of environmental and social factors in
cognitive development although it is not possible to establish a
cause-effect relationship since the study did not manipulate variables.
The children in this sample were from a low economic status and the sample
is not representative, although 17% of American children live below the
poverty line according to the 2004 census.
Low SES is associated with a number of adverse factors that can affect
cognitive development, (e.g. physical and mental health problems, social and
psychological stress, and poverty.
The correlation between parental nurturance and memory has also been found
in animal research. Prolonged stress due to maternal separation affects the
hippocampus, which is vital in memory processing.