‘Understanding developmental cognitive science from different cultural perspectives’ – In Conversation with Tochukwu Nweze

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In this podcast Tochukwu Nweze, lecturer in the Department of Psychology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and, PhD student in MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge talks about his recent paper on parentally deprived Nigerian children having enhanced working memory ability (read the research digest of the paper), how important is it to study cultural differences in cognitive adaption during and following periods of adversity, and how can mental health professionals translate this understanding of difference into their work.

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Interviewer: Hello, welcome to the In Conversation Podcast series for The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health or ACAMH for short. I’m Jo Carlowe, a freelance journalist with a specialism in psychology. Today I’m interviewing Tochukwu Nweze, Lecturer at the University of Nigeria, and a First Year PhD student in the MRC Cognition and Brain Science Unit at the University of Cambridge.

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Tochukwu Nweze: Hi Jo, I am Tochukwu Nweze, a junior lecturer in the department of psychology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a first year PhD student in MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge. And my PhD projects are focused on understanding the long-term consequences that childhood adversity have on mental health and cognition.

Interviewer: Now early parental deprivation such as that experienced by children living in institutional homes has been associated with enduring impairment in cognitive abilities, yet your my understanding is that yours findings, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, show that deprived Nigerian children have enhanced working memory ability. That sounds surprising. How do you account for that?

Tochukwu Nweze: Indeed, we found that the deprived group in our sample consistently perform better than the non-deprived children in working memory outcomes across all analyses. These findings maybe surprising to western researchers who are used to reading deficits associated with deprivation in academic journals, and to be honest with you Jo, the results were initially surprising to us too. However, when you take into account the prevailing classism of social-economic mobility in Nigeria, it makes sense to see why deprived Nigerian children would have enhanced working memory ability. In our paper, we had accounted for this enhanced working memory ability of the deprived children as a consequence of adaptive characteristics of deprived children towards the prevailing Nigerian social mobility syndrome where underprivileged children tend to work their way up to higher class or what we may also call career success through academic accomplishments. As a person coming from low income background myself, I still clearly remember the poetic rhymes we were taught in nursery and primary schools by our teachers that education holds the key to our different successes. So we had argued in our paper that working memory abilities may have been prioritized as a result of deprivation-specific challenges of the deprived children which include but not limited to chronic uncertainty, and poverty. And western studies have actually shown that working memory capacity which we measured in our study is strong predictor of academic success and so we thought that this early academic success maybe pivotal for Nigerian deprived children. But one fundamental thing is that even if educationalists in Nigeria still advise deprived children to work harder than their non-deprived counterparts because of the rather specific challenges or adversity they face, one thing that still particularly came as a surprise to me in particular in this our study is that even in a laboratory experiment, where some bunch of kids are taken to the laboratory for testing without any prior knowledge or some overnight rehearsal on the type of task at hand, that the deprived children in our sample were still able to show superior working memory abilities relative to their non-deprived partners.

Interviewer: Can you explain how important is it to study cultural differences in cognitive adaption during and following periods of adversity?

Tochukwu Nweze: Absolutely, imperative. The editor-in-chief of Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, Prof Edmund Sonuga-Barke could not have captured it any better when he advocated for research on diverse cultural groups to shape perspectives and common understanding of child and adolescent development. And given our findings from Nigeria which clearly differed from what we previously know, Prof Sonuga-Barke’s opinion has clearly been vindicated. In fact, during this covid lockdown, when boredom and loneliness were getting the better of me, I started writing beautiful emails to many researchers and academics whose works have strongly impacted my thinking and perspectives. One of the academics I reached out to was Prof Bruce Ellis of University of Uta. He sent me another recent paper by Prof Steve Howard and his colleagues which was published in 2019 in Developmental Science titled “Challenging socioeconomic status: A cross‐cultural comparison of early executive function”. In the paper, Prof Howard, they found that South Africa children significantly performed better than Australia children in all three cognitive functioning tasks consisting of working memory, inhibition and cognitive flexibility. But that’s not important, what was even of more importance to me in their study was that the most highly disadvantage South African children from very very very low income families significantly out-performed the most privileged Australian children from high and middle income families in two out of these three executive function tasks. Prof Howard study and his findings gave me so much delight as they showed that the claims we made in our own paper wasn’t illogical after all. These recent findings from Africa have shown why it is imperative that we understand developmental cognitive science from different cultural perspectives.

Interviewer: Given these findings, how can mental health professionals translate this understanding of difference into their work? For example, in terms of how they shape their interventions?

Tochukwu Nweze: Yes, in a video abstract of our paper, I initially floated the idea that clinicians and educationalists could promote cognitive and mental health resilient functioning of children exposed to adversity by exploring ways to maximize their relative strengths. Since then, I have received one or two requests from clinicians to clarify or provide additional information. You see when an individual had just passed through adversity, it is inherent that the foundation of their cognitive and mental health functioning will be tested to its limits. If unfortunately, such individuals live in a hostile environment or surrounded hostile people who are only interested in highlighting their weaknesses, without a mention of their strengths or hidden talents they possess, I tell you Jo, its only a matter of time before they start losing confidence in themselves or start showing deficits in key outcomes. These things are not just only psychological or scientific, they are equally spiritual, you know, you don’t just see the process, you just suddenly observe that everything is in chaos. And unless these individuals start pushing back, the success of any intervention will be limited and uncertain. But on the other hand, if the strengths of the children reared in adverse conditions are highlighted in a consistently sincere approach and these talents or strength are utilized in way that maximizes its potentials, most of which are initially latent, I tell you, its also a matter of time too before these talents come to light. This idea, I think, holds irrespective of one’s ethnicity, and nationality.

Specifically to your question, however, I think there maybe culture-specific interventions approach which we should take into consideration in the light possible cultural differences in consequences of adversity as revealed by these recent studies from Africa and the already existing western studies. For example, evidence from western studies show that people reared in adverse conditions generally have poorer cognitive and mental health outcomes. However, this has always been subject to individual variability as you still observe some of those raised in adverse condition who show little or no deficits and go on to perform well despite their adverse experiences. It may be that intervention studies become more successful in these western samples if researchers or clinicians understand the protective factors that buffer or shield this minority subsample against maladaptive developmental outcomes and try to translate these protective factors to intervention programme in majority subsample who still show deficit outcomes.

In African samples for example, you find that as a group, deprived children are performing extremely well and most times, even achieve higher positive outcomes than the non-deprived. That’s not to say that all the deprived children do not show impairments. Of course, just like in western samples, we acknowledge individual differences in development of adverse cognitive and mental health outcomes as we still observe a minority sub-sample performing well below within-group and between-group performance. I believe that understanding the cognitive and mental health protective factors in this majority deprived children who show no impairment could help the minority children who show impairments. However, few weeks back, I was discussing these findings from Africa with three female clinicians, two clinical psychologists here in Britain and a psychiatric in the United States. They were in total admiration of the incredible resilient functioning of these deprived Nigerian children and were unanimous in their judgment that they actually need little or no intervention as they obviously know what they are doing. And I tell you, I was very impressed with those beautiful ladies and also think that they know what they are doing too. In fact, I believe that what the majority of deprived Nigerian children need is more or less monetary intervention, just give them big big money, and they will calm down.

Interviewer: I know you have touched on this but it would be helpful if you explain some of your reasoning of why these deprived children would had this enhanced working memory. Just some explanation as to what you think is going on that would give them that boost in the enhanced working memory

Tochukwu Nweze: likely I previously said, due to some inherent stress which is specific to the type of environment they live. Because these children in institutions,  alright? or foster homes and they are faced with chronic uncertainty, poverty, and due to Nigerian socioeconomic conditions and the already prevailing classism of social mobility, which means that people find it harder to move from one social class to the other. This enhanced working memory is a kind of extra motivation to change their status from lower to higher but you may argue that this should apply to both people from deprived and also people from non-deprived background as well. That’s where you have to be conversant with prevailing socioeconomic class

Interviewer: so its around the issue of motivation that seems to be the driver

Tochukwu Nweze: exactly, and like I told you before when underprivileged children are specifically told by their parents and their teachers that this is one of their routes to career success, because in Nigeria, sometimes you see people from wealthy families, they just finish school and whatever grade they graduate with or before graduating, their parents or big uncles are already establishing a company for them which they will easily move into upon graduation, but this is not so for deprived children. For deprived children, its not just good enough that you have graduated from a university with good grades. Yes good grade is good but you will need an exceptionally good grade for people to be moved. For example, consider yourself to be a company owner, you have kids who have just graduated with a 2.1 degree from a university and so many of your other relatives with lower grades, you don’t know me and I come into your organization for example applying for job. If I come with the same grade, you will give me little or no attention, unless probably I have a way superior grade that can become a kind of leveler. So these are the sort of things that happen.

Interviewer: Is there a danger that your findings could be generalized in such a way that some cultural groups could be considered more resilient than others, which in turn could become a barrier to them accessing support?

Tochukwu Nweze: Absolutely! No doubt about that if we are to judge based on the available scientific evidence. If western children stay only 2 or 3 months in institutional homes, and later we read that they have deficits in all cognitive outcomes as well as brain atrophy but African children on the other hand live in the same institution or foster homes for 3, 4 years and then go on achieve excellent academic and cognitive outcomes, you will agree with me Jo that it is inevitable that we consider the potential differential resilient and adaptive functioning in these different deprived samples. But more importantly, it is crucial and fair that we also take note of differences in what maybe culturally considered as adverse childhood experiences as well as its prevalence and severity and how these cultural differences in classification of adversity, taken together may influence how people develop adaptive and resilient outcomes. For example, some parental attitudes maybe considered corrective and appropriate in Africa but such parental attitudes in western countries could even result in state intervention including forceful child-parent separation. So these are the holistic factors which we must account when assessing cultural differential resilient outcomes.

And specifically to your question of whether greater resilient functioning in Nigerian sample for example could hamper real-life support or intervention for them. I don’t really think so. And I will like to make this point on a very very serious note. On the contrary, I think the greater resilient functioning observed here should even facilitate necessary individual and group support like subsequent adoption by foster parents or increased educational funding from charitable organization for these kids living in institutional homes. What happens in Nigeria is that some of these kids in institutional homes are usually adopted by families at infancy or early childhood. However, some other children there are less fortunate to find a home at the early age and when they grow up to middle to late childhood, their chances of finding a home even further diminishes because adoption at later age is seen as more or less very higher risk with decreased expectation of positive key life outcomes. But our findings on the contrary showed that this was not the case and in fact, children who stayed at the institutions up to late childhood (the average age of the kids in our study was 13 years) are as likely to achieve as high academic outcomes as anyone else. I think our findings should dispel such misgivings about life potentials of older kids at institutions and rather motivate families and parents both in Nigeria and outside Nigeria to go for the adoption if need be and invest in the education of the kids. This is also an opportunity to call for greater academic investment in the kids who eventually will not be able to find a home but who are very desirous for university education. First, I must commend the efforts of the missionary, as well as charitable individuals and organizations in seeing to the welfare of these kids. But in its current form, there is always a limit to what they can do to help. For example, in the Daughter of Divine Love orphanage home Enugu, Nigeria where our institutionalized samples were recruited, while I commend the DDL missionary for their superhuman caregiving they offer to these children, but due to limited funds available to them, I see a very small possibility that they can actually sponsor these kids up to university education when these kids come of age, even if they are well qualified and eager to attend the university. So that’s why I call on the government of Nigeria, and national and international charities or concerned individuals to take a closer interest in these kids, especially now that there is scientific evidence that most of them have what it takes to fulfill their potentials. And I tell you when I am rich enough, my target would be to send them all to the university if they so desire, but until then, people of goodwill in Nigeria and beyond should set-in and offer educational intervention. It maybe true that for no faults of theirs, they have been battered down by adverse life experiences but the good news is that they are not lying down.

Interviewer: So their hope is that your study will be used to support the evidence as to why should be happen?

Tochukwu Nweze: Absolutely.

Interviewer: Tochukwu you have mooted the idea that some Western studies that found enhanced performance in deprived groups were not adequately reported because of a lack of confidence. Are you suggesting that the enhanced cognitive abilities you saw in deprived Nigerian children, may also be found in other deprived groups, including children in the UK? If the above is the case, then are your surprising findings due not so much to differences between how Nigerian and Western children respond to adversity, but rather to do with differences in attitudes and approaches between different research communities? And if that is the case, how do you bridge this gap?

Tochukwu Nweze: Indeed, I mooted the idea that it is likely that authors find it harder to publish their studies in good journal outlets when findings show null or contrary results if they know that will face unfair scrutiny from peers or if they have a feeling that such papers will barely be recognized by peers. For example, it’s been shown that studies that found significant results are more likely to be cited than studies that do not find significant results. Because papers that reported significant results are more reinforced in the field, it makes sense to speculate that almost every researcher who has up to 5 to 10 years experience in research and publication may likely have up to one study that they conducted which was binned halfway because preliminary results showed no statistical difference or a study which was already completed and written and because of the difficulty getting such paper published for the same reason is now filed in the desk. I tell you, file drawer problem has been a major publication bias in psychological research. And most importantly, I believe this happens in every research communities whether in the west or in Africa. The thing is that we are just beginning to learn how early-life adversity affects children in Africa, with the adversity-exposed children possessing a kind of strong protective factors against adverse effects of adversity. So it is likely that as findings begin to build around a strong theoretical support that deprived children in Africa do not show deficits, researchers who subsequently find contrary or null results to this effect will be very reluctant to publish such results because it may appear to deviate from an already shaping theorical positioning. Now translate this to decades of western studies that appear to revolve around deficit theory which have shown that deprived western children show impairments in cognitive outcomes. It is likely other western studies or findings which do not have the support of this established dominant deficit theory may not have been adequately reported. And It is a very good thing that recently an alternative but complimentary theory based on adaptation and hidden talents are gaining momentum and some western researchers are gradually coming to the understanding that childhood adversity may become adapted to certain aspects of cognitive functioning and there maybe indeed be heterogenous outcomes following adversity. So when I write my manuscripts or when I review manuscripts written by other authors, I actually encourage them to present a balanced perspectives of these two theories of deficits and adaptive models of adversities, acknowledging studies that have both found significant results, non-significant results and contrary results.

Interviewer: so what you are saying is that if researchers are also so brave enough to preserve to get published, then it would be likely that we see some of these results replicated in other groups in western children and children from UK

Tochukwu Nweze: Yes, that is my understanding and like I told you earlier that there are also heterogenous outcomes that have reported in western samples, most studies have also shown that western children do not show impairments. Like when you do a study and they do not show impairment, it is seen as more or less adaptive behaviour. So developmental psychologist leaning towards adaptive or resilient functioning have interpreted no significant result to mean a kind of adaptive characteristics in these western samples. So, yes, you are right, at the moment, we still have studies that have shown higher cognitive abilities or no difference between the deprived and non-deprived groups in western samples but I believe that the culture of people not reporting some of their studies that do not show significant results is also obtainable in both western culture and African culture. Its is not a culture-specific thing.

Interviewer: Tochukwu, what else is in the pipeline that you’re working on or further research that excites you that you will like to mention?

Tochukwu Nweze: Well Jo, I have this nostalgic emotions towards my future research plans. Just before coming for my PhD programme, my sweet loving little boyfriend ordered me to get out of academic as soon as possible because he feels I am too controversial to have a successful career here. He advised that probably I should join a politics where my right wing ideologies will be put to best use. You know Jo, I was distraught because my boyfriend was very instrumental in bringing me to academia in the first place. And I held his hand as a man would hold his boyfriend and asked him, if he wanted to throw away all the love, affection and mentoring we have had just because we have a chosen a different life-course. Well, I was earlier warned by a stranger that my boyfriend is not a great great guy but I was blinded by love which has actually become my greatest Achilles heels. And if you think that I am just being naughty or cheeky here, just hang-on to my hand till they show you the video clip, with the swearing and all that. I don’t swear myself, but I will like to be straight as I can get here, I am not in anyway deterred by this incident. And the good news is that my academic colleagues in both Cambridge and University of Nigeria are okay with my right wing enthusiasm and I will be continuing with my sweet science. As a matter fact, along with my terrific PhD supervisor and two other lovely ladies in our lab, we are getting the job done. We are just submitting a very very important paper involving 5 waves of longitudinal child and adolescent mental health data to a very important journal and when its published, I tell you, its going to be lite. At the moment, I can’t talk more about this particular paper because the journal rules forbids authors from speaking to the press about their papers under review or that have not been published in the journal website. And you know, I love rules a lot, and no one keeps them better than me. But I think it will be very interesting to have another round of conversation with you when the paper is eventually published. And as much as it hurts to say, I now agree with the stranger’s opinion about my boyfriend, I still love him and I might even take the positives from his advice in the longer run, beyond my PhD years.

Interviewer: Tochukwu, finally, what is your takeaway message for those listening to our conversation?

Tochukwu Nweze: Before I end, I will like to make a very passionate call for mutual respect among academics because I believe that academia holds the foundation of the larger society. And I think that our research and practice will make less positive impact in the society, if we do not respect people who are different from us and ideas or views different from what we hold. I take myself for example, in the future, I’d love to help the underprivileged or troubled individuals, folks who had gone through adversity of any kind, to live a more adjusted life and achieve higher than expected life outcomes, and I’d think and imagine how I can accomplish this if I do not possess the basic moral values of kindness, empathy and love which are essential for building truth. And as much as people in academia emphasize productivity, competitiveness and team work or collaborations as the case maybe, I think we should also encourage these basic moral values because absence of these can both undermine our academic community and the contributions we make to the society. Afterall, a wise scientist once said that science and every life cannot and should not be separated. Although my friends tell me how terrible my memory could be sometimes, but if I recall correctly it was Rosaline Franklin who made this wise quote and you know, I think I completely agree with her. I mean, if you take a closer look, the annoying thing is that most of the things that tear us apart and cause this so much tensions in our community are just little distractions which the real enemy has used to infiltrate our ranks and sow confusion in our midst. Rather than discussing things that matter or how we can pay our dues and improve the lives of people in the society, many talking points now are focused on the distractions of differences in race, ethnicity, and status, or sexual, political and even religious orientations and all these things that in my own opinion, do not matter at all. Okay? So I make this appeal to everyone in the academic community, to respect and value one another because that’s the way you will be respected and valued, to love another because that is the only way you can expect to be loved in return, and if we get these basic moral values right among ourselves, the larger society will surely benefit from such positive energy, but I think until then, I think we should not cry more than the bereaved when things go wrong elsewhere, be it with the police, with the justice system or in the government.

So my final message to those listening to our conversation is that of Love, kindness and understanding. Personally, I have seen the best of love and the worst of hate, and I tell you, love always prevails. And no matter how dark the times we live now maybe, we must never despair, we must never despair for even the dimmest of light threatens the thickest of darkness. So let our light shine, let it illuminate the whole world, it bring hope to the hopeless, let it bring joy to the persecuted, let it bring love to the unloved and let us all go about making the world a better place. I say go and conquer the world with your love, go and conquer the world by the light you shall bear. Go champion, gooooooo!

Interviewer: it sounds a great place to end

Tochukwu Nweze: Thank you Jo, its been nice talking to you.

Interviewer: its been fascinating talking to you. For more details on Tochukwu Nweze, please visit the ACAMH website: www.acamh.org, and twitter @ACAMH. ACAMH is spelt A.C.A.M.H, and don’t forget to follow us on iTunes or your preferred streaming platform and let us know if you enjoyed the podcast with a rating or review and do share with friends and colleagues.

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