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Home arrow Geography arrow Global Perspectives on Human Capital in Early Childhood Education: Reconceptualizing Theory, Policy, and Practice


Neurosciences and Biopolitics

The National Agenda for Early Childhood (Agenda) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007) in Australia was the first national collaborative approach for ECEC among state governments, departments, the nongovernment sector, and the community that created a vision and framework for the early years. The Agenda lays down priorities for “evidence-based and coordinated action which will result in improved health, learning, and emotional and social wellbeing of children, both during the early years and over the course of their lives,” extending the agenda and policy initiatives to an approach integrating education with health and well-being (p. 16). The creation of a national framework for ECEC contributed to a strong economic program as it was placed under the national productivity agenda. It aimed to increase efficiency and reduce spending by overseeing and coordinating the various sectors engaged in “child work,” by preempting the future overspending on welfare in areas of health and social security.

Scientific discourses, especially research conducted on early brain development by McCain and Mustard (McCain & Mustard, 1999; Mustard, 2002) or the study of Shonkoff and Phillips (2000), were also included in the Agenda as well as in other related policy discourses to support economic arguments and to emphasize the great role that the parents and the community play in children’s development and well-being. Thus the regulation of ECEC was extended to new players in its governance network (Ball & Junemann, 2012). The use of brain research as a “regime of truth” and associated authority, as MacNaughton (2004) argues, helped to legitimate the need for

ECEC. Against the “noisiness” of social research with humans in which the context and complex nature of the subject alters research findings to a great extent, brain research simplifies findings into linear causality. It articulates that optimum brain development ensured by the most favorable physical and personal environment results in productive and healthy adulthood. Other factors, such as social disadvantage, acting upon adult productivity are not considered or are disregarded in these arguments.

As I have demonstrated in the three models, human capital theory provided the basic link between particular desired human behaviors, their acquisition, and economic aims. As human capital theory mixed with particular knowledges—social compensation, industry skills (early intervention), or enterprising culture—different models were produced that constructed the problem, subjects of the problem, the learner and the child, the solution (attempt), and outcome in particular ways. So what are the effects when neuroscientific discourses entangle with human capital theory?

Neurosciences and their sibling fields of biomedicine and biosciences, target and expand knowledge from the person as an entity to the internal processes of the body. While human capital theory has targeted certain aptitudes of the individual, neurosciences help to make visible the internal mechanisms of the body for regulation. For example, while so far creativity was attributed to the individual, it became possible to conceive of it as a particular operation of the human brain. Thus these new imaginings of the person shape novel subjects and ways to govern individuals or the population en masse.

Since government moved into new areas, such as the regulation of the population’s biological processes and aims to control and enhance the population to multiply and increase the capacities of the body to be more productive, Foucault’s notion of biopolitics needs to be reconsidered. Biopolitics treats the “population” as a mass with biological characteristics and particular kinds of pathologies that give rise to specific knowledges and techniques for its regulation. In biopolitics life appears as the object of political strategies and takes as its subject the human body and its biological processes. According to Foucault, a biopolitics of the human race began to emerge as the state became concerned with the population as a commodity that needed to be governed so as to protect, preserve, and fortify it and its capacities (Foucault, 1978). Children’s bodies are understood as a biological resource, where the aim of government is to control the health and welfare of the population so that overall productivity can be increased. In particular, biopower (2007) and discourses of childhood exert a futurity in relation to children (Jenks, 1996), since it concerns their future well-being as economic citizens (Popkewitz & Bloch, 2001). Biopower carries a specifically biological aspect as it is concerned with increasing the body’s utility, and therefore the health, well-being, and productivity of the population, through the acquisition and development of particular capacities. Biopower is exercised over young bodies so that their productivity and individuality are constituted in ways that are connected with issues of national policy, including economic processes.

However, neuro- and biomolecular knowledges go beyond the borders of the body and open new spaces for intervention that not only alter metabolic processes (e.g., enabling better concentration/atten- tion) but also their programming. As Lemke proposes, biopolitics needs to be reconsidered to understand the current constellations of power. Lemke (2005, p. 6) citing Rheinberger (1996, S. 25) argues, “For the first time, it is on the level of instruction that metabolic processes are becoming susceptible to manipulation. Until that point was reached, medical intervention, even in its most intrusive physical, chemical and pharmacological forms, was restricted to the level of metabolic performance.” It is no longer about taking Ritalin and making the child less “agitated” but about alleviating the cause entering into and reprogramming the child’s mind. By reshaping notions of the individual that are now represented in the form of manipu- lable biological processes, new governing mandates attach themselves to existing techniques for the regulation of bodies and minds, such as those of the “psy” sciences (psychology, psychiatry, etc.) (Rose, 1989). Like the changes psychology effected in our way of thinking throughout the twentieth century, neurosciences, biomedicine, and biosciences form a “new regime of truth about our nature as human beings” (Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013, p. 227) and potentially reconfigure and make intelligible otherwise individual and collective problems.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, neurosciences became a repository of hope, attaching to many “sites and practices that were colonized only earlier by psychology”—such as child development or learning theories—from early childhood education to child rearing and began to transform them in significant ways (Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013, p. 9). Neurosciences reconceptualized personhood with the idea of the neuromolecular (describing the brain’s anatomy and physiology), plastic (brain’s mutability across life span), and visible brain (made possible by animal research and visualization technologies) (2013). In biomedicine and biosciences “life itself” became manipulable (Franklin,

2000). Rose and Abi-Rached argue that developments in neurosciences, biochemistry, and biomedicine finally provided evidence that the brain is the home of the mind and contributed to the materialization of the mind in the brain. The neuromolecular vision of the brain materialized cognition, emotion, or volition as biophysical, chemical, and electrical processes that the brain performs. They rearticulated the knowable capacities of the brain and created possible interventions, for example, through psychiatric pharmacology that has the capacity to alter DNA sequences or epigenetic makeup.

Due to its links with eugenics, the often-critiqued field of psychiatric genetics reached new understanding that overcame genetic inheritances by describing “changes in single bases in the DNA sequences” and how those might lead to “susceptibility to certain diseases or response to particular drugs” (Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013, p. 11). Neuroplasticity removed the notion of structural limitations due to fixed genes and introduced the dimension of time from fertilization through the following decades of life. Notions of synaptic connection formation and “rewiring” not only reinvigorated rehabilitation from brain damage but also produced new regimes of truth for the early periods of life. Moreover, as Rose and Abi-Rached (p. 12) further explain, “Epigenetic arguments sought to establish the ways in which experience ‘gets under the skin’ at the level of the genome itself?' Intrauterine and early childhood experiences are considered fundamentally life shaping allowing environmental aspects, such as “optimal maternal care,” to be passed down for generations. Neurogenesis proved this link by providing evidence about the production of nerve cells after the first year of life as an effect of environmental experiences. Visual imaginaries of the brain provided insights not only into its structure but also into the its functioning. These were then linked to mental processes and mental states from happiness to political allegiance (2013).

While these findings and their interpretations are highly contestable, overall they have provided a “belief that we can see the mind in the living brain” (Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013, p. 13). The visualization of the mind made the brain a logical target for the governance of individual conduct and the formation of new concepts of person- hood. The explanatory power of neuroscience and biosciences provide a knowledge base, new notions of personhood, and imagination of the future to mix with human capital. They make life and reasoning attached to the brain (and mind) itself an additional target for policy interventions that result in reconceptualization of policy agendas and practical prescriptions.

By the twenty-first century, as Rose and Abi-Rached (2013, p. 14) argue, (the industrial North) societies have

moved from the risk management of almost everything to a general regime of futurity. The future now presents us neither with ignorance nor with fate, but with probabilities, possibilities, a spectrum of uncertainties and the potential for the unseen and the unexpected and the untoward.

Governments thus engaged with the “government of the future” and contemporary problematizations of the brain and life became central to notions of futurity and the canvassing of social and economic problems. Entwined with human capital theory, the alteration of biological processes has the potential to provide some intervention, prevention, or calculation to prepare for uncertain futures.


In current international early childhood discourses (White, 2011), “brain research” puts forward the view that optimal early brain development necessitates quality early education to stimulate synaptic growth. The external environment impacts on neurobiology and influences the health and well-being of young children. Therefore “optimal stimulation” is vital (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). The importance of early brain development is often linked to international economic competitiveness.

In these discourses, the plasticity of the human brain is understood as an “economic resource,” where the biology and genetics of individuals represent “raw (biological) materials” and correct nurturing practices are linked to ensure the vitality of the nation in a volatile future. And those who have immediate influence on healthy pregnancy and optimal brain stimulation during the earliest days and months, including entire families but especially mothers, become protagonists (Edwards et al., 2013) to reach economic and governmental ends or to provide some predictability for the future. As so vividly described by Edwards and her colleagues, prenatal courses and parenting education are also reshaped by these knowledges to govern mothers’ conduct:

Pregnant women and new mothers are the explicit targets, reflecting the resurgence of old and highly contentious tenets of attachment theory . . . The quality of care is claimed to be reflected in the anatomical structure of the child’s neural circuits with sensitive mothers producing “more richly networked brains.” (p. 5)

Neuroscience discourses also decode sociality in biological terms, since it is argued that early social relations, including most importantly pre- and postnatal relationships, are coded in genetics (based on epigenetic research findings on rat mothers that engage in high or low amounts of licking/grooming and arched-back nursing of their pups); thus these codes are passed on to future generations (Fish, Shahrokh, Bagot, Caldji, Bredy, Szyf, & Meaney, 2004).2 This coding enables the capacity for living in groups; therefore, parents should understand that earliest interactions have ramifications also for generations to come. Parents are asked to learn to understand their minds, including their empathy, emotionality, fairness, and commitment to others to pass “optimal” relations down to the next generations and consequently “to maximize the mental capital and moral order of society as a whole” (Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013, p. 22).

This form of parenting requires particular forms of self-awareness from parents. Since the process of hardwiring the brain is hypothesized to be finished by three years of age, there is a need for very early “optimal care” and intervention, which in turn infuses much policy and practice literature and focuses on families and most prominently early maternal care and relationships. In particular, narrow ideas about rigid “critical” or “sensitive windows” of development are overemphasized, where lack of a certain type of parental stimulation early on in a child’s first years is posed as causing permanent stunting in many areas graphically represented by images of the “pruned” brain. In sum, ideas and visuals attached to the neuromolecular, plastic, and visible brain provide avenues to intervene on the brain and the mind and therefore produce new targets and techniques of governing the individual and population that are attached to existing forms of interventions, such as those offered by the “human sciences,” including early education and most particularly optimal parenting.

Neuroscience cannot provide instant solutions for the classroom. Therefore applied research bridges the gap between laboratory and classroom settings to find ways to increase “mental capital” (Howard- Jones, n.d.; Howard-Jones & Fenton, 2012, p. 121). Neuroeducation at John Hopkins University or at the University of Bristol works on developing new techniques to intervene in the brain. Academic research in ECEC also plays an active role in translating neuroscientific findings into classroom applications in areas of intervention ranging from learning theory and development to social problems. A good example is the special issue of Early Education and Development 23(1) in 2012 themed “Neuroscience Perspectives on Early Development and Education” that “provides the opportunity to acquire enlightening new perspectives on familiar topics such as learning and cognition, socio-emotional development and self-regulation, reading and mathematics, the effects of poverty, early intervention, schoolreadiness, and teaching practices” (Twardosz & Bell, 2012, p. 1). Conferences, popularizing presentations, and workshops organized on the various interlinkages, such as between media and technology and brain science, are translating these connections to parents and practitioners in a popular but nonetheless simplistic and deterministic format, for example, “Parents want their children to have a healthy lifestyle with healthy food, exercise and a wide range of valuable experiences, but often forget that healthy neural development must take into account screen time and the impacts on the wiring of developing brains.”3 Similar conferences that offer better utilization of the mind’s capacities (“Change your brain for a better life” to “Maximize your motivation and performance” or “brain gym”) building on neuroscientific evidence and combined with positive psychology or mindful awareness (Zelazo & Lyons, 2012) are many. Ever broader audiences are recruited to attend, from psychologists to educators, from doctors to lay people.4 Similar content is taken up in training programs that aim to “raise public awareness about new findings in brain research and to educate everyone who has an impact on the early life of . . . children about the important implications of this knowledge”5 or that directly develop programs for the educators of young children, such as the MindUp program funded by The Hawn Foundation6 and popularized by the Benevolent Society in Australia7 to train teachers in primary and preschool education. However, as Pykett (2012) warns, teachers become “mechanic[s] of the brain” and their pedagogical and content expertise turns out to be less valuable than the superior expertise of the brain scientist.

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