Poverty on the Brain

By Lisa Feldman Barrett

Courtesy of Unsplash

By now, you’ve probably heard about Ben Carson’s astonishing statement that poverty is largely “a state of mind.” For “somebody that has the right mindset,” said the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development on March 24, “you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there. […] And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”

Much ink has already been spilled about Dr. Carson’s claims, but I’d like to offer two perspectives — one scientific and one personal.

Dr. Carson’s statement reflects what psychologists call “belief in a just world,” the idea you get what you deserve, and you deserve what you get. If you’re poor, according to this belief system, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough — or maybe you just have inferior genes.

Evidence from neuroscience shows that, where poverty is concerned, the “just world” is a fantasy. In actuality, poverty molds the brain.

Consider a child who is born into poverty. She is less likely to receive proper nutrition during her early years of brain development — circumstances that will harm the development of a region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). A thinner PFC is linked to poorer performance in school, and less education, like not completing high school, which ultimately reinforces her poverty. In this cyclic manner, society’s stereotypes about poverty can become the physical reality of brain wiring, thereby making it seem as if the cause of poverty were simply genes all along.

This vicious cycle is not some liberal bullshit. The neuroscience is crystal clear: brains wire themselves to their surroundings. A developing infant brain requires wiring instructions from the world around it. Without proper nourishment, both nutritional and social, that little brain will not develop to its fullest.

Dr. Carson also confuses what’s necessary and what’s sufficient. A strong, positive mindset might be necessary or helpful to pull yourself out of poverty, but he’s implying that motivation is all you need do the job.

This is clearly unjustified, and not because neuroscience says so. I’ve seen it first-hand. I grew up a member of the “working poor.” My family’s refrigerator was often bare, as were our bookshelves. In winter, I remember shivering on my school playground because I didn’t own a warm coat.

Sure, I pulled myself upward though hard work and what Dr. Carson would call “the right mindset,” though to be honest, I was probably more motivated by the fear of sliding back down. Nevertheless, mindset alone wasn’t enough; I also had distinct advantages. I have light skin and therefore did not experience the constant onslaught of racism. I grew up in Canada, a country with universal health care and a potent social safety net, and where a university education is far less expensive than in the United States. And through sheer luck, I landed a part-time job at a library that paid three times the minimum wage. Together with the income from two other jobs, I could pay my tuition, allowing me to become a scientist, have a career and a family, and ultimately ensure that my child got all the nutrition she needed.

People with tremendous motivation can’t always find a way out of hardship and debt. Last year, for example, I heard a radio show about a couple who worked multiple jobs but still could barely keep food on the table for their two young children. Their electricity was slated to be shut off the next day, not because of some moral deficiency, but because food plus utilities exceeded their available cash. My husband and I were so distressed by their circumstances that we located the family and paid off their electric bill. Sometimes, all people need is a hand to help them dig out. That’s something Dr. Carson doesn’t seem to understand.

In Dr. Carson’s statements, the only mindset I see on display is a toxic one: the belief that people, through their own weakness, bring poverty on themselves. That’s a mindset that we all can do without.

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT, PhD, is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Psychiatry and Radiology. She received a NIH Director’s Pioneer Award for her research on emotion in the brain, is an elected member of the Royal Society of Canada and was recently awarded the 2018 Mentor Award For Lifetime Achievement from the Association for Psychological Science. She is the author of the How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For more information, see lisafeldmanbarrett.com. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LFeldmanBarrett.

Originally published at lisafeldmanbarrett.com on June 4, 2017.