Earlier this year, an Indian politician made headlines and aroused ridicule when he defined poverty as ‘just a state of mind’. Controversy aside, it’s a fairly common thought, based on the concept that poverty is not defined by a lack of physical resource, but rather a poverty of spirit; where there is a lack of education, understanding, community or hope.
But what about the physical effects of poverty? A sunny attitude to life, or the strength of familial love doesn’t ensure that food is on the table, nor that savings mount up in the bank. So what effect does poverty have to a person’s hard-wired state of mind - their cognitive function?
First, a short science lesson: directly behind your forehead lies a section of your brain called the prefrontal cortex, which handles all of your analytic processes (problem-solving, goal-setting and self control). It works in tandem with the limbic system which processes emotions and triggers emotional reactions.
When these two work together harmoniously, it goes like this: our limbic system registers a powerful desire, and whizzes a signal to the prefrontal cortex which then busies itself solving the problem or achieving the goal. However, this process falls into disarray for those living under the immense pressure of poverty. The limbic system goes into overdrive, scatter-gunning strong signals of fear, stress and anxiety which serve to completely swamp the prefrontal cortex. This emotional overload massively reduces brain capacity, meaning the individual struggles to make rational decisions, thereby compounding other problems and reinforcing the feeling of hopelessness.
Poverty is accompanied by a host of stressful conditions: overcrowding, noise, substandard housing, relationship breakdowns, separation, exposure to violence, family turmoil. The effects of these conditions on the brain are phenomenal, and contribute to a perpetuating cycle of poverty.
Scientifically the consensus is clear. Poverty is not merely a state of mind: it's a neurotoxin.