Helen Abadzi

The author explores a number of intriguing questions. How is it, for example, when many projects run successfully for a sustained period, that measures intended to improve the living conditions of the poorest of the poor fail, as was found in a World Bank Evaluation Department study? Have people living in extreme poverty a “brain architecture” that is different from that of people who do not live in poverty? Is there a difference in brain architecture between literate and illiterate people? And if so, do these differences in turn affect the success and sustainability of adults‘ learning, abstract thinking, memory, etc. And what conclusions need to be drawn? Helen Abadzi is an educational psychologist with a doctorate from the University of Texas at Arlington and an interest in the applications of cognitive science and memory research to improve the education of the poor. She is particularly interested in applying state-of-the art research to improve the effectiveness of adult literacy programs. She is Greek and a polyglot; since 1987 she has worked as an education specialist and senior evaluation officer at the Operations Evaluation Department of the World Bank.

Adult Illiteracy, Brain Architecture, and Empowerment of the Poor

The donor community has made sustained efforts to empower the very poor, who are often illiterate, through access to social services and financial resources. However, some community-driven projects have not produced the expected outcomes. Multiple reasons account for this phenomenon, but the cognitive skills of the very poor may affect the outcomes of community development projects in ways that are poorly understood. Ability to make decisions may determine whether people are empowered. This ability is fostered by effective schooling that helps connect multiple parts of the brain and facilitate information processing. Illiterates perform worse than people who went to primary school in various neuropsychological variables, such as ability to use ready data for deductive reasoning, short-term memory, categorization, visuospatial discrimination, numerical abilities, abstract speech. People with at least three years of effective schooling perform better in neuropsychological tests than illiterates. Though it is possible to teach some neuropsychological skills to illiterates, it is unknown whether improvements are sustainable and whether adults can put them to practical use. Applied research in the decision-making skills of the illiterate poor is needed to find effective avenues so that they can benefit from donor-financed interventions.

Empowerment can be defined as the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform these choices into desired actions and outcomes. Empowering the poor has been linked to improved project performance and governance and to growth that is more pro-poor. Empowerment is thus one of the top priorities in the fight against poverty. To that end, the international donor community has promoted increased access to basic services, better national and local governance, pro-poor market development, and access to justice and legal aid.1

The World Bank’s plan to help communities become more empowered has been translated into several projects that emulate successful local initiatives and foster community-level participation, decision-making, and creation of social capital.2 An evaluation study of community- driven development by the World Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department (OED) found that some interventions were quite successful, particularly those involving long-term support to communities and initiatives that were already mature. For example, the successful Borgou Pilot Project in Burkina Faso build on a village-level participatory approach developed in Benin and included rural appraisal and adult literacy for existing groups. Other successful experiences depended on the personality of a dynamic leader, such as an agroforestry group of women in Ghana.3 However, unsuccessful experiences abounded. Complex implementation difficulties, dysfunctional government staff, relatively high costs, and a possible threat to established authority lines certainly played a role. Most government officials interviewed for the evaluation study expressed doubts regarding the ability of communities to make wise decisions and control financial resources. In the view of many, communities should just be prepared to implement with commitment decisions that governments might take.

The implementation ability of poor communities and the relationships between the elites and the poor proved to be important issues. Elites often mobilized more quickly, mastered rules of submitting applications (particularly if they could read and most in the community could not), and could present themselves to the community as an effective conduit for receiving funds. Local elites in northeast Brazil and panchayat leaders in India made many decisions without community participation. Committees often included villagers who were better off, and who often reported a greater increase in empowerment. Villagers were often deferential to the elites. Committees of the very poor often proved dysfunctional; women stood in for their husbands rather than made decisions, and villagers abandoned the often time-consuming meetings to go to their work.4 Communities were required to handle bookkeeping, for which many lacked the knowledge, and they often found it hard to disburse funds or stop mismanagement. Training was indispensable but proved too little for the poor, sometimes as little as one day to learn the care of water systems. Not surprisingly, community participation outcomes were greater for those beneficiaries who were better off than those who were very poor. Sometimes the elites representing the village handled the projects in ways favorable to them and were unwilling to help the very poor. Overall, the OED evaluation raised doubts regarding the feasibility of community-driven development and the long-standing hypothesis that communities know and can act on their best interests.

One possible reason for these disquieting results may be the beneficiaries’ decision-making processes. Empowerment strategies presuppose that the poor are able to process the information given to them and make judgments and decisions about it. However, research hints otherwise. The cognitive and neuropsychological research shows that there are significant cognitive differences between schooled and unschooled people, which may be at the heart of this quandary.

What is Known about the Thinking Processes of Illiterates?

Unschooled people perform as they have throughout history, and most of them have no cognitive deficiencies. However, schooled people have acquired cognitive “efficiencies” that give them certain advantages. Learning to read and write during childhood, listening to stories and answering questions, create neuronal connections among parts of the brain that might normally not be directly connected. Thus, literate people have neural networks that are missing from the brains of unschooled people. These are related to attention span, memory, data use, and ultimately decision-making. Research studies, often using older Portuguese women and Mexican villagers as subjects, have illustrated some ways in which the brains of adult illiterates differ from those of literate people:

A different brain architecture. Schoolwork modifies the wiring of the brain. Illiterates show less dominance of the left hemisphere in

Figure 1: Example of functional brain organization differences between literates and illiterates


The PET (positron emission tomography) scan measures cerebral blood flow while literate and illiterate subjects repeated actual words or pseudowords. It shows views of blood flow from the top, the side, and transversely. (Adapted from Castro-Caldas, A., K. M. Petersson, A. Reis, et al. 1998.)

language than literate people and are likely to be more affected by strokes on speech centers. Brain scans of illiterates have shown that during language tasks, brain activity was more localized, and the locations activated were different from those used by literate people (Figure 1). When listening to real words, literates and illiterates performed similarly, but illiterates had more difficulty repeating artificial words (pseudowords) correctly.

Differential language development. Reading and neuropsychological functions are correlated, but the exact cause-and-effect relationship between them is unclear. However, reading affects the interaction between the visual and language systems. Though illiterates have normal language development, they often do not understand how individual sounds make up words (a skill called phonological awareness).5 Educated people use more complex sentences, sophisticated words and tend to refer to abstract concepts more often.6 Surprisingly, many illiterates cannot completely understand the messages of radio broadcasts, even if they are in the same language or dialect and have a familiar context. If illiterates do not understand well the meaning of complex or abstract speech, they may not understand certain messages directed at the poor and thus may miss out on some development interventions.

Limited understanding of drawings. Schooling influences the ability to identify three-dimensional figures (called visuospatial discrimination), such as recognizing and naming pictures of objects (which exist in school books) in newspapers, or posters.7 Women may be at a particular disadvantage. Research carried out on Mexican illiterates showed that women scored less well than men in tests such as drawing a cube.8

Computational limitations. People have innate math abilities, but these are limited to quantities of 1-3 objects. Though the unschooled develop essential arithmetic functions needed for their jobs, they perform less well than schooled people in numerical tasks.9 Also, they solve more easily arithmetic problems involving real-world situations (such as merchandise) than abstract questions, such as 15+19.

More limited short-term memory. Many illiterates may have prodigious long-term memory, a skill used to transmit epic songs or events through generations. However, they typically perform more poorly than schooled people in tasks involving short-term memory: recalling a series of digits backward and forward, remembering 10 words, reproducing a short story, reproducing complex figures that were presented, recalling common objects, remembering sequences. Only in repeating simple sentences do they perform as well as literate people. Possibly, they do less well because the memory functions of literates are stretched in school.10 Along with short-term memory, the attention span gets lengthened in school and supports learning outcomes.

Later maturation of neuropsychological skills. Throughout life, the educational level determines performance on these tests more than age does. However, the performance of illiterates in some neuro- psychological tasks improves with age. People with a low level of education show their best performance at an older age than highly educated subjects.11 This phenomenon may make elders more valuable to a community of illiterates.

Differential use of data. Though little research has taken place in recent years, it is possible that illiterates rely on concrete facts or group consensus, to a greater degree than people with primary education.12 For example, an illiterate person presented with the syllogism “All women in Mexico City are beautiful. My friend is from Mexico City. Is she beautiful?” may reply, “Of course she is because you like beautiful women.” They may also categorize concepts differently from schooled people, and may be less likely to use higher-order and lower-order categories.13 If asked what a duck is, for example, a schooled individual would say that it is an animal or a bird; an illiterate might say that it is edible or that he killed one the day before. Again, schooling may account for this difference. Teachers pose hypothetical questions and ask students to use available data, so schools offer practice in syllogisms and categorization skills. These become pieces of the cognitive toolbox used in daily life, for example, to compare loan interest rates or summarize to family members a political speech and discuss implications. 


Satyen Moitra

Why should we become literate?


What kind of people are we? We are poor – but we are not stupid.
That is why, despite our illiteracy, we still exist.
But we have to know
why we should become literate.
We joined the literacy classes before.
But after some time, we got wise. We felt cheated. So we left the classes.

Do you know what we found out?
The Babus take up this work in their own interest.
Maybe the election is round the corner, or perhaps there is a government grant or something which must be utilised.
What they taught us was useless.

To sign one’s name means nothing.
Or to read a few words means nothing.

We agree to join the classes if you teach us how not to depend on others any more.

We should be able to read simple books, keep our own accounts, write letters and read and understand newspapers.

One more thing -  why do our teachers feel so superior? They behave as if we were ignorant fools, as if we were little children.

Please do understand that the teacher may know things which we don't.

But we know a lot of things which are beyond him.

We are not empty pitchers. We have a mind of our own.We can reason out things and, believe it or not, we also have dignity. Let those who will teach us remember this.

We have enough troubles and sufferings.Why should we add to them by joining literacy classes?

If the learning centres can make us feel a little more cheerful, then we may feel an urge to join the classes.

We are not children. Let the teacher remember this. Treat us like adults. Behave with us as friends.

And yet, something more – don't get a square meal. We have few clothes. We don't have a proper shelter. And, to top it all, floods come and wash away everything, then comes a long spell of drought, drying up everything.

Would it help us if we became literate?


Source: Adult Education and Development No 31, 1988, p. 115–117

Adverse health effects among the poor. Cognitive functions are known to be influenced by health factors that compound schooling limitations: young maternal age, difficult births, low birth weight (particularly for girls), violence, exposure to toxins, anemia, or malnutrition. Repeated intestinal infections (such as giardia) particularly in the first two years of life may reduce cognitive ability by reducing blood flow to the brain as a result of dehydration caused by diarrhea. Parasites such as hookworm, schistosomiasis, and malaria may cause chronic anemia. Serious infections (including contaminated water) may result in lower measured IQ and impaired visual-motor functions. Iodine deficiency in many areas of heavy rainfall (as in Bangladesh) is associated with reduced intelligence, psychomotor retardation, impaired hearing, and mental and neurological damage. In addition, many poor (including abused women) suffer from depression, which is related to lower activity levels and impaired learning. Women’s frequent iron- deficiency anemia may impact cognitive processing. 14

The cognitive skills which illiterates perform more less well influence various aspects of thinking: conclusions, perceptions of risk, the consideration of context on making judgments, comparisons, use of reference points, cognitive biases, and the communication and sharing of information relevant to decision-making. A very short working memory limits the use of practical strategies to perform many mental tasks. Villagers may attend a meeting and hear community development options available from an emergency social fund or receive agricultural extension messages. But they may fail to fully understand or follow a lengthy presentation and may be less able to pay sustained attention to speeches and other lengthy deliberations. They may fail to understand the diagrams or pictures presented, forget some of the alternatives offered, later fail to follow up on some attractive alternatives. Thus, the unschooled may find it most convenient to obtain information from authority figures. This may be one reason for the  deference to authority figures, even if they mismanage funds or work against the well-being of the poor.

The first three grades of schooling seem to have the most significant effect on cognitive variables; subsequent grades have a decreasing effect.15 Many poor have been to school, but schools in low-income areas are often inefficient and fail to teach basic skills to students. Limited schooling (including a foreign language as a medium of instruction) may have left them with few if any of the benefits that should be derived from the commensurate number of school years.

Cognitive Solutions Urgently Needed for Unschooled Populations

Are the illiterate poor doomed to be exploited as they have for millennia? Hopefully not. But the issues must be recognized and receive some serious attention.

In community-driven development and adult education, the world is in completely new territory. At no time in history was so much required of minds after they had reached adulthood. The adult brain seems to have a limited potential for change partly because the myelin sheath around nerves favors transmission speed rather than creation of new connections. Studies of aged educated populations show more plasticity than had been expected, but the limits of these mechanisms have not been tested. Completely new technologies loom on the horizon, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation that has the potential of ‘rewiring’ the brain through rapid magnetic pulses and that may one day facilitate the arduous tasks of training. Overall, it is unknown how far the brains of the average poor can be pushed to develop beyond the usual limits, particularly when they have little access to any kind of services. At the same time, the average lifespan has increased worldwide, and it is hard to ignore the current adults and just focus on the young.

Adult literacy instruction, the obvious and affordable solution, has not functioned well to this date. Results are modest,16 and there is some concern that adults may not easily become fluent readers. Listening comprehension can improve after six to nine months of literacy instruction.17 But it is unknown whether adult literacy coursework can help create in unschooled people the brain architecture found in literate people and at what cost of time and money. (Long study would be completely impractical for most people.) It is also unknown whether such effects can be sustained.

To learn more about empowering the very poor, the donor community may invest in neurocognitive research on illiterate populations. A research program is urgently needed to find out exactly how the poor are affected, to what extent it is practical to remedy cognitive deficits, how to do so, and what resources may be needed. Promising research tools are:

Brain imaging research. State-of-the-art tools, such as brain imaging techniques can offer ‘real time’ information on various aspects of cognition, show areas where the neural transmission is limited, and suggest possible avenues for improvement that are not known and have not been considered before. If some relatively simple methods for intervention are found, the payoff may be considerable. Unless the cognitive limitations of illiterates are taken into account, development agencies may overestimate the effectiveness of poverty interventions. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment exists in some lower-income countries with many illiterates, such as India, South Africa, and Brazil.

Modeling the decision-making processes of the poor. Understanding the decision-making processes of illiterates, given currently known deficits, may help in the design of better projects that cater to the poor. Decision theory and related neural networks research have been used to guide business and military decisions. Creating computer models of the decision processes of the very poor may help target messages and resources to them more efficiently. The economic effects and variables related to human decision-making have been studied extensively by Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics (much of whose work was published with the late Amos Tversky). These could be put to use in understanding and predicting the decision processes of the rural poor in order to make them more empowered. It might be possible to study, for example, how cognitive limitations interact with social and gender issues in ways that make committee deliberations break down before reaching decisions.

Improving communication with the very poor. Many efforts have been made to make messages understood by the very poor, (including “IEC” – information, education, communication), but this work has been largely done empirically. Consulting the existing cognitive research may open more avenues to the decision-making process of the unschooled. For example, reliance on consensus strengthens the rationale for group formation, which has been used extensively for microcredit and literacy.  

Improving Cognitive Performance – Some Possibilities

Aside from research, there are positive steps that can be taken through the present-day state of knowledge. Examples are:

Provision of quality schooling. Clearly, the best means to have efficient decision-making in poor communities is to give the poor children the mental tools of those who are better off. This means high-quality schooling, where students learn to read in grades 1-2, study in a language they understand, and are engaged in contemplating the information rather than merely hearing it or repeating it. Unfortunately, schools catering to the poor often use just a fraction of the prescribed school time and take an inordinately long time to teach students basic skills.18 Thus, after three years of schooling they may hardly know their letters. It is unclear how well the verbal and visual parts of the brain are connected in students who have spent three or more years in school but are functionally illiterate.

Improving cognitive functions through literacy and direct instruction. Perhaps it is worth attempting to remedy deficiencies through literacy or other nonformal courses. A literacy program (called Neuro-alfa) was developed to remedy the deficits of illiterates in Colima, Mexico. Besides basic literacy, it taught phonological awareness, semantic categorization, finding similarities, interpreting objects drawn on paper, verbal memory, and abstracting abilities. The program was taught in 40 hours over three months, three times weekly. After literacy training, the participants improved in most neuropsychological tests compared to two traditional programs (though not in motor function tests), and had higher reading scores, particularly in comprehension. They also improved in time orientation, calculation, and deducing the sequences of various figures, which had not been specifically practiced. This method, if investigated further and expanded, would be useful to those taking literacy classes. It is unknown, however, whether gains are sustainable and whether neoliterates used them in decision-making over the long term.

Promoting visuospatial training. Techniques using visuospatial features can be enhanced to give extra practice to illiterates. An example is the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) technique used by some donors and NGOs like ActionAid. PRA facilitators use visual materials to help the poor articulate their existing knowledge. Participants choose a local issue to discuss and resolve, working collectively and producing materials such as maps, calendars, matrices, diagrams, The method may improve spatial orientation and verbal fluency, and it should be piloted for this purpose and evaluated for long-term sustainability and potential effects on decision-making skills. These issues may seem alien to some adult educators. However, the development community cannot afford to ignore the trends of cognitive neuropsychology. A lot of money is being spent on solutions that prove ineffective despite the best intentions, and the risk arises that staff of development agencies will become disillusioned and abandon empowerment. It is time we did the research needed to find out what variables really matter in the empowerment of the poor and to what extent they can be ameliorated.


1 World Bank 2002, OED 2005.

2 Social capital refers to the norms and networks that enable collective activity in a community.

3 Operations Evaluation Department 2005.

4 One problem for the very poor was the time demand of the participatory process. It usually involves a needs assessment carried out in each community, prioritization of problems, listing priorities for micro-projects, screening and approval by authorities, training of community leaders, and establishing the community contribution before any work is done. The extended participatory dialogue with the community, starting at the planning stage, leading to empow- erment, and finally to ownership, arriving at a 30% funds mobilization, proved very laborious in some cases, as in Kenya (Project Performance Assessment Report, Kenya. Arid Lands Resource Management Project. Credit No. 2797-Ke), 2005).

5 Petersson et al. 2001; Ardila et al. 2000.

6 Reis et al. 2001.

7 Reis et al. 2001.

8 Ardila et al. 2000(a).

9 Ardila et al. 1989; Ardila et al. 2000(b); Reis et al. 2001.

10 Ardila and Rosselli 1989.

11 Ostrosky-Solis et al. 1998; Ardila et al. 2000(b).

12 Some research on how unschooled people think started in 1931–32, when the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria interviewed illiterates in the former Soviet Union (in Levi 1996). Luria deduced that illiterates could not reason abstractly and has been criticized for cultural insensitivity, but Lecours (1989) made similar observations. The localized activation shown in brain scans of illiterates may lend some support to these observations.

13 Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition 1986.

14 St. Sauver et al. 2001, Berkman et al., 2002, Delaney-Black et al. 2002, Levinger 1992, King et al. 2005, Baum et al. 2004.

15 Ostrosky et al. 1998; Ardila et al. 2000b.

16 Abadzi 2003(a), 2003(b).

17 Comings et al. 1998. Morais et al. (1987). People tend to ‘compile’ parts of sentences as they hear them, stopping momentarily at phrase boundaries, looking for the verb actors (Reisberg 2001, p. 324, Stine 1990, Aaronson and Scarborough, 1977). It is conceivable that illiterates are not as efficient at this task as people who have heard teachers for years. But the shorter working memory of the illiterates may also leave them less time in which to compile what they hear.

18 Abadzi 2004; Crouch et al. 2005.


For readers wishing to go into the subject more deeply, we include a longer bibliography than usual.

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