Streetwise

Adults who struggle as kids often turn out smarter than those who had stable, privileged upbringings and a private education.

It’s a fact of life – some kids come from dysfunctional families or broken homes. Some of them played truant from school, they got into bad ways, they shoplifted and they committed crime to get money for drugs.

It would be easy to assume that these people, as poorly educated as they might be, might also turn out stupid. Surprisingly, they’re not. Many of them developed a different kind of intelligence. True, some have used their intelligence to hone their skills of guile and deception, but others have used it to achieve success and to build worthwhile and productive lives. For instance, it’s well known that many entertainers – especially comedians – had miserable childhoods.

You might call this different sort of intelligence being ‘streetwise’ and in a lot of cases that would be a wholly appropriate description. Either way, many of those who suffered as children do have a different kind of intelligence – emotional and practical – from the rest of us. My question is… why?

A deprived upbringing often means that individuals will develop unique abilities and skills in order to cope with living in high-stress environments. Speak to anyone who endured childhood in an orphanage or in social care. Listen to their stories and ask how it affected their lives as adults. Most of all, ask them how they learned to survive.

Survival is an evolutionary adaptation that allows people to respond to hardship in different ways and develop new skills to survive. Each story, each experience, is unique. Each survival strategy is developed to cope with a world that is all too often unfair and unjust.

Researchers at the University of Utah have looked at studies of individuals – especially children – from high-stress backgrounds that suffered the kind of trauma associated with tough upbringing, and analysed how it enhanced specific types of thinking.

Children who grow up in low-socio-economic conditions inhabit a world where there are other people around who have more power and are more powerful than them. This is a very different environment than people from middle-class backgrounds, experience.

The first ‘specialness’ they uncovered was people who suffer serious long-term trauma seem to have better memories. There is a possibility that a more finely tuned memory stops similar things happening to them in the future.

For instance, children who had experienced negative interactions with people could remember them much more clearly than those with whom they had positive interactions. They also found children who had ‘verbally aggressive’ parents were better at recognising emotions.

What is not yet clear is whether these children already possessed enhanced memory ability and used it to raise themselves out of perdition, or learned – at an unconscious level – how to use that memory to protect themselves from future harm or abuse. What is clear however is that, while some may have abdicated their lives to helplessness, many of them have refused to become second-class citizens and used past experience to achieve.

Whereas most previous studies have been concerned with what is wrong with them, but the Utah study has attempted to find out what’s right with them, and this has to be real, not to mention positive, step in the right direction.

Being able to predict how people might develop as a result of deprived childhood stress could be an important and effective way to better identifying and understanding their talents. Yes, stress is bad, and can nurture long-term negative effects, but in many cases its positive effects are too often overlooked.

Researchers believe that understanding this cognitive survival mechanism will be of use in future research and could help schools tweak their curriculum for low-ability students.

Normally, schools, social workers, psychologists and society in general focus on making stressed children feel less stressed – just like their more privileged peers. If schools were to give these children more leeway to pursue their own interests, if they give them more opportunity to express themselves, to find their own niche, it might encourage them show their hidden strengths and talents.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.