Interview with Victoria Knowland: developmental neuroscientist

This submission is a response to an existing submission: 

Research Provocateur: Hello Victoria, and welcome. Tell me what you are.

Victoria Kowland: I am a PhD student looking at developmental neurocognition, so how the brain develops, how that interacts with the environment and with genetic effects, and specifically how language develops, as well speech and perception in the development of language.

Research Provocateur: Thank you for bringing us a brain poster.

Victoria Kowland: My pleasure.

Research Provocateur: I have just taken you to the object, shown it to you and talked you through it. What are your thoughts?

Victoria Kowland: I guess my initial thoughts were about the nature of “mental retardation”, as it used to be called, or “learning disabilities” as we would now say, unless you’re in America, then “mental retardation” is still ok. And how our conception of that has changed over the years. Our ideas about learning disabilities have changed a lot since that time (when the object entered the collection), as well as ideas about how our environments can contribute to the development of learning difficulties, how we learn information from the world, and how that interacts with genetic tendencies. You could think about the pica as being a genetic tendency of some sort, that might be some sort of congenital issue. There are some children with some types of learning disabilities, like Downs Syndrome children, that have a tendency to put objects in their mouths because they have a need for that sensory stimulation.

Research Provocateur: Is that because they find it harder to experience the world through something like language?

Victoria Kowland: Putting things in you mouth is a stage that children go through anyway because it’s learning about how to explore the world and how to interact with different objects. They learn a lot about the physical information of objects through putting it in their mouth which is something very sensitive, and for some children that just extends a lot longer. It happens with Downs Syndrome and it can happen in children with Autism as well. In Autism you either have hypo- or hyper- sensitivity, which often manifests itself as being very oversensitive to noises. Some children seek out that sort of stimulation in various different ways, and that can include the mouth and object relationship. I have never heard of pica as a disorder before, and I think it’s quite interesting that that’s part of other things that are associated with mental retardation anyway. So I guess I’m wondering to what extent the lead is causal to this problem, and to what extent it’s just a correlation.

Research Provocateur: It’s interesting to note in our research that the symptoms of lead poisoning, or it’s outcome if you like, is mental retardation. But then also, it says in those notes that the boy had been brought into hospital before with that symptom, so the question arises of which is it, and does it even matter perhaps.

Victoria Kowland: The other things that the notes triggered in me, partly on account of them being non-PC (politically correct), was that at that time, the fact that he was – what does it say – of “non-european extraction”, that would probably been quite significant in terms of mental retardation. Basically it is still sort of true that when you do an IQ test, they are very culturally specific. So people from different cultures perform differently on IQ tests because of the nature of the tests, because they are developed for, Americans essentially. Then children of different backgrounds don’t do very well on them, and some people over the years have taken that to mean that some races are more intelligent than other races.

Research Provocateur: And what would you say to that idea?

Victoria Kowland: Well it’s ridiculous. I mean these tests are standardised on a certain population, and only valid within that population, so to compare children across different races is ludicrous, unless you standardise the tests across all races.

Research Provocateur: The world.

Victoria Kowland: Exactly. It’s funny actually on Western standardised IQ tests, Caucasian people come second as a race after the Chinese, despite us having standardised it for the sake of saying how clever we are.

Research Provocateur: And what about with Chinese originated tests?

Victoria Kowland: I don’t know. To be honest, I’m not sure that there are many that haven’t been developed outside America and Europe.

Research Provocateur: There aren’t many IQ tests of non-european extraction?

Victoria Kowland: Exactly.