Primal Numbers – Your Brain on Money

You don’t have to go to an Ivy League school to know that money brings educational advantages. Everything from good nutrition to new textbooks can affect grades. Now, science has shown that being wealthy can affect your brain’s anatomy, with a measurable increase in the size of your cortex. But does that really mean money can buy brains?

The news comes from a team led by Harvard and MIT researchers. As Psychological Science reports, the study involved a group of students aged 12 and 13. The students came from two economic groups. One was defined as low-income, “those who qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch,” while the other group was from “higher-income families.”

Two measurements lined up with remarkable correlation among the students: performance on standardized tests, and the thickness of their brain cortex. Specifically, the areas of the cortex that have to do with “visual perception and knowledge accumulation.”

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the students from higher-income families had thicker cortexes and higher test scores than students in the low-income group. Yet It’s important not to assume that money itself will guarantee academic success?or vice versa.

True, money can create an atmosphere that provides every advantage for learning. After all, It’s a whole lot easier to focus when you’ve got a full stomach, a quiet space, fast Internet for doing research, and current textbooks. But so much of the equation still depends on the students themselves.

A student with every material advantage could also be the one who fritters away his time surfing the Net or cruising around in the high-end car that the bank of mom and dad bought. Or maybe she’d rather hit the malls and clubs while a major essay gets a sloppy last-minute effort. Bigger cortex or not, they aren’t going to be top of the class.

And here’s the other big factor that can override any economic advantage: the amount of encouragement a student gets from the people around them. As the research team noted, their findings “don’t mean that further educational support, home support, all those things, couldn’t make big differences.”

In fact, that would be another interesting study for the researchers to do. Rather than separating test groups by income level, researchers might take students from all economic groups and compare them based on the strength of their social environment. Viewed from that angle, the results could show that getting the right teacher or having a supportive family gives someone a big edge in test scores and brain scans.

Then there’s the fact that intelligence comes in all different flavours. Great at English essays? That doesn’t mean you’ve got the kind of brainpower to become a financial wizard. Like mogul Francois Pinault, who, as Business Insider reports, built a fashion empire and is worth some 15 billion dollars, even though he was so poor that he was bullied out of school.

And standardized test scores don’t always reveal the kind of scientific genius of a Marie Curie?a brilliant mathematician who didn’t have the money to pursue a math degree until she was awarded a scholarship.

Clearly, money is good for your brain in lots of ways, including a bigger cortex. Just don’t expect it to buy you that A-plus.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.