Blinded by neuroscience: social policy, the family and the infant brain

Journal article citation:
Families, Relationships and Societies, 1(3), 2012, pp.397-414.
Policy Press
Place of publication:

Social policy initiatives in the UK are currently promoting early intervention to improve the lives of disadvantaged children. Policy documents call upon neuroscientific evidence to warrant claims about the irreversible vulnerabilities of early childhood, and the proper responses of the state. The argument that the first 3 years are critical has created a now-or-never imperative to intervene before irreparable damage is done to the developing infant brain. The purpose of this article is to argue that the neuroscientific claims supporting current policy initiatives have received insufficient critical commentary. A critique of current policy in the UK is provided drawing on counter-arguments from the policy discourse in the USA during the 'decade of the brain', updated with more recent research findings. Overall, the article argues that the infant brain is not readily susceptible to permanent and irreversible damage from psychosocial deprivation. Rather, plasticity and resilience seem to be the general rule. The co-option of neuroscience has medicalised policy discourse, silencing vital moral debate and pushing practice in the direction of standardised, targeted interventions rather than simpler forms of family and community support, which can yield more sustainable results.

Subject terms:
resilience, social policy, child development, child neglect, child protection, early intervention;
United Kingdom
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