John Bruer: ‘Growing up in poverty doesn’t damage your brain irretrivably’

US philosopher, John Bruer spoke in March 2014 at a Kent University conference, The Uses and Abuses of Biology, about neuroscience, parenting and family policy in Britain. John believes that babies need somebody to care for them, but it doesn’t matter who that person is; early experiences are important but probably do not set your patterns for life; and young children do not need any special stimulation in order to develop normally.

John Bruer. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for The Guardian


At a time when parent has become a verb, such views verge on the heretical. And certainly that is the way his book, The Myth of the First Three Years, was greeted in some circles. Published in 1999, it was his response to what he saw as the growing influence of neuroscience on parenting and family policy in the US, spearheaded by the Clintons during the 1990s. It dismantled what he describes as the myths behind the misuse of neuroscience by politicians and policymakers. It saw him branded a rightwing mouthpiece. “Where I come from they see me as somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun,” he jokes.

Bruer believes that his criticisms still stand, 15 years after the publication of the book. And they apply increasingly to the UK, where policymakers are drawing on what he sees as the flawed US reports to promote early intervention with disadvantaged families. One of the most popular figures quoted by early interventionists is that “the human brain has developed to 85% of its potential by age three”. But Bruer points out that the figure applies to the “volume or weight of the adult brain. It says nothing about brain capacity.

“But if such arguments are being used to support much-needed help for disadvantaged families, where is the harm? “Yes, people need help,” he says. “And we should do something to provide that help. But the basis for our claims should be reasonable. We have to avoid this implicit assumption that growing up in poverty damages your brain – irreversibly.” Bruer  says he is not arguing that experiences in early life do not have an impact, but says they are “probabilistic, not deterministic. And there are things that can have a considerable impact on changing whatever it was that occurred earlier in life.”

A simplistic focus may also skew public funding to the detriment of other priorities, he warns. “In the States there were people arguing (that) we might as well stop educational programmes in prison because there’s nothing we can do for these people, it’s too late”.

Bruer himself grew up in a working-class family in the then small town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. His father was a postal worker, his mother stayed at home to bring up Bruer and his younger brother. It is clear that his own background has made him question prevailing assumptions. “I think there are these generalisations made by academics who have very little experience of what it’s like to be from a working-class home or an impoverished background, and they are attempting to impose these middle-class views on everybody, and I’m not sure that’s warranted,” he says.