SEATTLE, Washington – The effects of poverty are many and multifaceted, ranging from hunger and disease to anxiety and depression. While most aid efforts focus on the ramifications of living in scarcity, many are ignoring the core issues that are perpetuating the cycles of generational poverty. Although research has not produced definitive results on the root causes of poverty, many studies suggest that it is culturally endemic, systemic, and a result of many complex interrelated factors.
According to neuroscientist Eric Jensen, poverty is not simply a problem of lack of money, but a “chronic, mind/body condition exacerbated by the negative, synergistic effects of multiple, adverse, economic risk factors.”
Similarly, researchers Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg of Cornell University have found that poverty is passed on from one generation to the next by the fact that scarcity entails stress, which in turn affects the development of children’s brains and their ability to learn, resulting in another generation living in poverty.
It is clear then that poverty has multiple causes and effects originating not only from external conditions, but from internal ones as well, such as the well-being of the mind and body. In this context, several neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have focused on the techniques and alternative educational methods that can be used to overcome the barriers created by poverty.
Jensen, for example, believes that besides implementing primary tools such as novel teaching methods, physical activity, management of stress levels, and a supportive social climate, one of the most important factors for breaking a mindset of poverty, especially in children, is hope. Although it is commonly seen as a wistful, intangible ideal, hope has the power to trigger change by influencing gene expression which in turn changes the brain, Jensen asserted.
In the same way, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson focuses on changing the brain and suggests that the mind must be trained to focus on positive experiences so that these – and not the negative ones – become neural structure.
“Repeated patterns of mental activity build neural structure… The problem is that the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. We learn immediately from pain. Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure,” he said.
To counteract what he calls human beings’ inherent “negativity bias,” he suggests focusing on the positive experiences of life – even if they may be few – and allowing these to sink in and become neural structure in the brain. By repeatedly internalizing the sense of having three core needs met – safety, satisfaction, and connection – one can grow new neural substrates even as other challenges are being dealt with at the same time.
Although it may be argued that those living in poverty have very few positive memorable experiences, the power of hope and optimism is nonetheless applicable to those who are trapped in a seemingly never-ending chain of negativity, starting from hunger and disease, to lack of education, uncertainty, hopelessness, and despair.
In a world where more than a billion people still live in extreme poverty, the implementation of comprehensive aid policies that focus not only on the external circumstances of those living in poverty, but also on the mental and emotional health of those concerned, especially children who represent future generations, would be a cross-cutting solution with the potential to break the vicious cycle of generational poverty.
– Nayomi Chibana