26 de Marzo de 2019
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La Educación
Número: (134-135) I,II
Año: 2000

The Rights of the Brain

We honor intellectual achievement. Educational institutions open doors and empower with titles those who perform well on tests. In medical schools it is with tests that students are chosen, entrusted with the privilege of saving lives.

In the Jamaica study, hungry students underperformed in arithmetic. In a Guatemala study, adolescents who did not receive protein in their food scored poorly on tests of knowledge, numeracy, reading, vocabulary, and information processing tasks. Any one of these students could be our example, the student who strives with reading the word “education”.

As a student in Colombia, I lived hunger. Hunger is a unique sensation, it induces weakness, discomfort, pain. It is immediately relieved with food. Some of my classmates and I woke up hungry, went to school hungry, sat in class hungry. Some students did not do well on the tests. Some dropped out of school. Yet in these countries of hunger, proteins, folic acid and micronutrients are readily available. They are in the earth, the rivers, the sea. What is wrong?

In Colombia, before I chose to be a physician, I was obligated to serve as a soldier. I wore a helmet, a fatigue uniform, carried a rifle, drove a tank. It was a war of Colombians killing Colombians. Later on, as a physician, I worked with the poor. I saw mothers endure pregnancy on rice, yuca (a starchy root), panela (a molasses cake), agua and salt. I delivered the babies. These were drawn, sick, distressed babies. They joined the others; the “agua panela bottle-fed”, the poor. Starvation had dried the mothers’ breasts.

Those Colombian children were starved as their brain formed. Hunger struck them in the most critical moment of their lives. Why? No resources? No money? The money was there. It was used to buy helmets, uniforms, tanks, guns. Food could have saved our brains. What is wrong?

Malnutrition victimizes these children. It is as if they don’t have the right to a brain. The right for the learning of a word; for its lines to stimulate the retina, for the image to travel the neurons, become a thought, an action. In these children the wonderful brain journey might never start, or be slow, perhaps cease. Reading a word being difficult, thinking then hobbled. How could they succeed, on tests made by those and for those who are fed? What possible chance could these children have in life?

The children with no right to the brain become adults. Silent, ignorant, unskilled, powerless without education, we dismiss them. We act as though they do not exist. They are there. They are a class in their own. They labor for the educated class, join the violent, fill jails, lie in hospital wards. It does not take studies to identify them. We must apply what we know about education and brain, or they will always be there.