This is your brain on poverty. Image: University of Illinois
Growing up poor can actually damage your brain. That makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, since poverty sucks: Poverty can create a turbulent climate marked by chronic stress. Poverty can mean living in crowded, noisy environments, and worrying about where that next meal will come from. It can mean perpetually feeling somehow less equal than your peers. It can mean living with parents who are always stressed out, too. And all that stress, scientists have discovered, can have a permanent effect on the brain's ability to process and deal with emotions.
Being impoverished, in other words, may actually rewire the brains of those who have the misfortune to be born poor. This is a doubly important finding in our era of unchecked income inequality, where the poverty rate is actually rising in the US despite economic gains for the rich.
“Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult,” said Dr. K Luan Phan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois, Chicago College of Medicine, who led a team of researchers that just published a paper revealing the link between poverty and brain dysfunction.
Coming of age in poverty may lead to permanent dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala—which, according to the researchers, "has been associated with mood disorders including depression, anxiety, impulsive aggression and substance abuse."
In the study, Phan's team examined forty-nine 24-year-olds, half of which had been surrounded by the "chronic stressors" of poverty since age nine. They mapped the parts of the brain in charge of regulating emotion, and found that those who'd grown up poor showed greater activity in the amygdala, the region in the brain "known for its role in fear and other negative emotions." They showed less activity than their peers in the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate emotional behavior.
According to the research, "the amount of chronic stress from childhood through adolescence—such as substandard housing, crowding, noise, and social stressors like family turmoil, violence or family separation—determined the relationship between childhood poverty and prefrontal brain function during emotional regulation."
"... the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults."
The more stress you shouldered growing up, the more difficulty you'll have controlling your emotions down the line—and the harder it will be to cope with the complex challenges of adulthood. Phan's work is further evidence that the poor don't somehow "deserve" to be poor, as conservative commentators are often fond of arguing.
Earlier this year, another groundbreaking study published in Science found that the same poverty-induced stress that will eventually scar the young brain drastically limits cognitive function in the moment too. That study produced evidence that poverty usurps our "mental bandwidth"—we have less time, inclination, and ability to consider complex problems when we're consumed with stress. Reporting on the study, The Atlantic's Emily Badger put the findings in plain terms: "the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults."
It's simply harder to think or plan effectively when you're perpetually stressed. That means that working to lift oneself into the middle class—studying for exams, prepping for college, networking for jobs—requires a more gargantuan effort for the impoverished than most realize. Not only do low income families have to deal with having less monetary resources, the researchers behind the Science paper note that they're coping with "a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources,” too. The odds aren't just against the poor in the economic arena, but in the cognitive one as well.
There are now 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, many of them children. Tens of millions of people who are operating at a cognitive disadvantage through no fault of their own, and whose children's brains may actually be dysfunctional as a result. The research describes a distressing dystopian trend—a widening gulf between not only the rich and the poor, but the abilities of the rich and the poor to function to the fullest of their personal potential, period.
This is actually a recurring theme in speculative fiction, wherein the phenomenon is satirized with a healthy dose of hyperbole: the poor actually devolve as the rich exploit them and relegate them to menial, back-breaking labor. H.G. Wells' Time Machine features grunt-like, laboring Morlocks who toil at the behest of the "intelligent" elite, the Eloi. The bizarre Sean Connery film Zardoz sees humanity separated into similar tribes; the technologically advanced rich live in a comfortably sealed-off utopia, while the devolved serfs hunt in loincloths and obey a simplistic and fantastical religion.
Obviously, nothing that severe is really happening now, but those exaggerated speculative dramas are meant to jolt us into recognizing a deeply destructive class problem. We've long known there are severe economic problems with an income inequality-laden society. Clearly, poverty begets social ills. And now, a growing body of scientific research is showing that poverty actually screws with our brains. This is not a promising direction for society at large—we desperately need some institutional and political correctives, like income redistribution, stat. Just think; by raising taxes the rich and the upper-middle class, it could help repair the brains of millions of people.