“What do you believe that you cannot prove?” was the question posed to me and maybe a hundred others by The Edge, a website devoted to cutting edge thinking.
In my answer, I proposed that children we unintended victims of larger technological and economic forces that inadvertently were hampering the development of emotional and social intelligence. I wrote: “The most compelling data come from a random nationwide sample, conducted by Thomas Achenbach at the University of Vermont, of more than 3,000 representative American schoolchildren aged seven to sixteen, whose behavior was rated by their parents and teachers—adults who knew them well. The first sampling was taken in the early 1970s, another roughly fifteen years later, and a third in the late 1990s. The results show a startling decline in social and emotional health.
“There is a precipitous drop between the first and second cohorts. American children in the mid 1980s were more withdrawn, sulky, unhappy, anxious and depressed, impulsive and unable to concentrate, delinquent and aggressive, than they were in the early 1970s. They did worse on 42 indicators, better on none. In the late 1990s, however, scores crept back up, but not as high as they had been on the first round.”
I’ve always wondered what could account for the more recent improvements in this realm of children’s life skills. Now, almost a year later, I have heard an answer that both surprises and satisfies me – I believe it may be true, though I cannot prove it.
The answer came recently when I was on a conference call with several dozen scientists who are members of the Center for Health and the Environment, and interviewed by the group’s co-director, Michael Lerner.
We were discussing the multiple ways in which chemicals in the environment harm our health, and particularly the neural development of children. This has profound implications for emotional and social intelligence, since the neural circuitry for these essential human abilities are the last part of the brain to become anatomically mature, and during this period (which extends into the mid-20s) toxins in food, water and air can interfere in multiple ways with healthy brain growth.
At one point I posed the puzzle of kids’ behavioral problems, asking what might explain the stark dip from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, and then the improvement over the 1990s.
One of the environmental scientists on the call spoke up to make the case for lead as a prime culprit. Research has shown, she said, that children’s exposure to lead can increase aggression, impulsivity, learning deficits, and troubles with social skills – in other words, just the range of problems that Achenbach has documented.
And that dip in the 1980s, and rise in the 1990s? Coincides nicely with when laws went into effect prohibiting lead in gasoline, and hence in exhaust fumes that go right into kids’ lungs, bloodstream – and brains.