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Intellect

Lost Einsteins: Reducing poverty increases innovation

BYU Law professor finds hidden benefit of helping the poor

How poverty affects creativity and innovation

Professor Stephanie Plamondon Bair is making a new case for laws aimed at reducing poverty: They will fuel economic growth through an untapped pool of innovators.

Bair has a law degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and she’s using both in a new report that connects important dots between brain research, poverty, creativity and government.

“A growing body of psychological research shows that poverty changes the decision-making of those experiencing it,” Bair said. “The practical result of these changes is a co-opting of scarce attentional resources to deal with pressing, day-to-day needs. It harms one’s ability to be creative.”

In a 43-page article forthcoming in the Ohio State Law Journal, Bair details how poverty alters decision-making patterns in the brain. Research shows that poverty shifts the brain into a type of thinking called “exploitative,” which helps day-to-day survival. As that becomes the dominant thought process, another kind of thinking called “exploratory” fades away.

When brains get trained to just survive the day, they lose the ability to imagine and pursue the next big thing.

“Because a young person’s brain is the most malleable at this time, the conditions of poverty can disrupt developmental trajectories,” Bair said. “And because the window of malleability eventually closes, these brain impairments, if present in early adulthood, can last a lifetime.”

Poverty keeps "lost Einsteins" from achieving creative potential

So why can we easily think of someone who overcame childhood poverty, like Oprah Winfrey?

“The story of the starving artist or innovator is a compelling one and gets repeated often,” Bair said. “But anecdotes are not data. If anything, they show how we might be putting undue weight on stories like Oprah's, while overlooking the fact that the vast majority of innovators and creators come from more privileged backgrounds."

The message for policy makers is to consider what they can’t see: the children who would make major creative contributions given a measure of financial stability. A true cost-benefit analysis of national poverty-reduction programs would take into account the untapped innovation potential of the 12 million children currently living in poverty in the United States.

"We often think about poverty-reduction programs in terms of their economic costs, with any benefits being primarily dignitary,” Bair said. “But the link between poverty and innovation suggests that these programs could have major economic benefits as well, in the form of increased innovation, which fuels economic growth."

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