I recently saw a video on Upworthy.com and it really got me thinking. The video is talking about the mental health and overall well being of middle class, and upper middle class, women and how stress effects their minds and bodies. This doesn’t really apply to me. I’m not middle class, I’m just a few dollars above the poverty line. But I watched it anyway, more out of habit than interest. A few minutes in, the speaker, Dr. Libby Weaver, mentions running for fitness purposes. Almost in passing she says that the primitive portion of our brains cannot readily distinguish between running for fitness and running from a predator. That was when I had a sudden epiphany.
By the way, I seriously love that moment when you can finally see how things interconnect and you get that sudden mental supernova that opens up a completely new reality. I think this is why I love learning so much; I get high on those explosive little moments where the connections in life and existence suddenly light up your perceptions. You can be aware of concepts, but until that moment when you finally connect everything together in your mind, knowing concepts is not the same as knowing how things work.
In this case, I’m talking about the effects of poverty stress on the mind. I’m going to go ahead and skip all of the medical terms, the technical jargon, and the big three dollar words here and just give you the basics, so here goes:
Being poor is exactly like constantly being chased by a large, hungry, predator.
It’s taken millions of years for our brains to reach their current level. It is our ultimate survival toolbox. What we call emotions are really closer to complex chemical reactions designed to help us figure out what action, or inaction, is needed for survival. If the brain is a toolbox; then emotions are one of our most significant tools in that box. Emotions like empathy, fear, love, and anger are the result of millions of years of survival evolution. Emotions help us process and navigate our environment through observation, learning, and application.
Nowadays we consider emotions like fear and anger to be more harmful than helpful. Because of that, we try to suppress or ignore those emotions. However, our brains still recognize and process those emotions the same way it has for millions of years. The fear and anger emotions work in direct relation to our “fight or flight” reflex. Our primitive ancestors were superstitious because of the survival based fear reflex. Here’s a quote from the TV series CSI to help understand the concept: “You’re primitive man on the savannah. You see something move out of the corner of your eye. You assume it’s a hyena. You run, you live. If you assume it’s the wind and you’re wrong, you die.”
We are descended from the ones who ran, because they were the ones who survived. For millions of years this has kept the human race alive and thriving. Being poor is exactly like always seeing something that is stalking you just out of sight; but not being able to run or fight. And since we can’t run, our brains react on our bodies as if we were cornered and making one last hard push for survival through physical confrontation. Only poverty keeps us from actually being able to do anything for ourselves that would help us to survive. Our wages aren’t enough to be able to survive against predators like rent, electric bills, and the grocery store. We try, we fail, we try harder, and yet we continue to fail; so our brains can never let go of survival mode.
Right now, I have too many bills and not enough money to cover them. My level of trying to survive isn’t “can I get a new phone next year” levels but “how many people can I feed on one can of tuna” level. My brain registers this stress in the same way it would if I had just seen a predator stalking me from the bushes that I need to either physically engage or run away from. But I can’t run. I’m frozen in place. I can’t fight either because what I’m fighting is an ethereal concept. My brain doesn’t know that though. It’s working on millions of years of data that is unable to differentiate between a physical threat and a conceptual threat. My mind automatically reacts to the threat of eviction in the same way that it would if I were trying to either escape or fight a large predator.
But here’s the problem, our minds and bodies are not evolutionarily designed to deal with a never ending threat. They are designed for short quick bursts of action, followed by an extended period of relaxation that allows the brain to reset the chemical reactions to be able to meet the next threat. Both the mind and body require these rest periods in order to properly function. When we do not get these rest periods, our brains do not really know what to do next. So when the perceived threats just don’t stop, it makes it even more taxing. The poverty mind is essentially running from one threat right into another and another and another without respite.
The mind understands the concept of effort being used in survival. It isn’t difficult to translate “go kill a deer, get meat, eat meat” to “go to work, get a paycheck, buy food with paycheck”; as long as it actually works that way. But when our minds process poverty threats (like eviction or starvation) that are not alleviated or escaped, it begins to suffer because of it. Poverty is like running down a path away from a bear…only to run straight into a tiger that makes you climb a tree…which is full of bees that you dive into a river to avoid…only to find the river filled with alligators, and so on. The poverty brain never gets a respite. It’s always in fight or flight mode.
The human brain really doesn’t like that. This is where escapism and escapist behavior comes in. Abstract moral concepts don’t work well within the survival brain. They are social constructs that serve no real survival purpose that the primitive brain can recognize. Subsequently, these more abstract moral concepts are overridden by the base survival needs. All the mind knows is that it hasn’t rested yet because the threat hasn’t been taken care of yet. The mind craves those rest periods and will drive you to take them wherever you can.
This is why poor people seem to make bad judgments as it pertains to their finances. A poor family that can’t pay their rent who buys a big TV instead is driven by a mind that does not understand “I have to pay rent” as being different that “I have to run from a tiger”. It perceives a threat that it can’t escape from so it constructs a solution based on the available ideas. It eventually begins to get easier and easier to justify those distractions from the core survival thinking simply because the brain HAS to have those distractions in order to be able to continue to handle the threats. So while we understand things like going to work and paying our bills as methods of survival, not being able to do so overtaxes the brain. Our brains need regular breaks from this to be able to work properly. So now the brain’s requirements are, literally, driving you to distraction. Social mores dictate these behaviors as things we should feel bad about. Which only further complicates the brains functions in these situations. Which only really reinforces the mind’s need to seek further escape.
Now let’s take this idea in a slightly different direction. There are four key instincts: Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, and Fucking. These are the central concepts that drive our brains. These are needs that must be met before the brain will give up any extra energy to do anything else. When one option is not available, the brain switches between these four concepts until it finds one that is available. In poverty you can’t feed, you can’t flee, and you can’t fight, so there’s one thing left that can be done. Which is why poor people do it so often. No matter how many arbitrary social constructs there are, nothing will stop these four things completely.
This is also why poor people end up having more children than those who live more comfortably. My husband and I have sex every night, and no,this isn’t an exaggeration. This is our escape. It releases all of those wonderful pleasure chemicals that we can’t get through things like accomplishing our social and cultural survival goals. For someone else who does not have a strong pair bond to use as an escape, and still has all of the other problems, the drive for respite and reprieve becomes behavior that society considers promiscuity. This is further complicated in teens and young adults who enter puberty, a time when the breeding drive begins to awaken, while mired in poverty. An increase in sexual behavior also increases your breeding chances. Which also explains why poor people have more kids.
We socially consider the ability to control or suppress or control these four survival needs as being strengths. However, our primitive minds register NOT meeting these needs as failures. This is why it seems so hard to be celibate or to diet or to run a marathon. It’s not what we are designed for. Like the above link explains, our primitive brain does not differentiate between running for fitness and running from a predator. To your brain, running is always processed as running for you life.
These problems are even more pronounced in children. Think about it in terms of animal behaviors. A young animal’s first instinctual reaction to a perceived threat is to bolt for safety. But if you are a child living in poverty, there is no safety to be found. The brains of poverty stricken children are in a constant state of “RUN!” as well as a constant state of “FOOD!”which hinders their ability to successfully process anything else. This is one of the biggest reasons why high poverty schools see fewer educational goals being met. The poverty mind doesn’t care about learning 2+2=4 because it’s feeding and flight needs haven’t been met. Until those needs are met, the primitive mind cannot, and will not, process the more abstract concepts.
So why does it seem like impoverished areas are also high crime areas? Because when you can’t flee, you have to fight. When there is nothing to physically confront, you end up lashing out at whatever is available. Our brains can’t process fighting a concept; so they find something to take the place of it and react to that instead. As poverty worsens, more people fall victim to this primitive drive, and the end result is that crime goes up. Essentially, the poverty mind is in a constant primitive state; which disallows the brain to successfully process anything that is not a base survival need.
Coming from my current perspective, I would have been able to much better process and explain this entire line of thinking had I not also been thinking about being behind on my rent, not having any food in the house, when the electricity is going to be turned off, how much longer before we see another paycheck, how am I going to buy school clothes for my kids, when can I get this breast lump checked out, how will I make my car payment….and so on.
People in poverty understand that work equals survival, and so do their primitive brains. When work doesn’t equal survival, the brain thinks you didn’t hear it the first time it sent the signals. So it starts to crank up the volume. When its needs still aren’t met, it ramps things up even more. Why do poor people seem to have fewer morals? Because you cannot think about abstract social concepts, like morality, when all of your mind’s bandwidth is being taken over by its primitive survival needs. The poverty brain is overrun with a constantly streaming banner of base needs that are not being met. When all of the brain’s available chemical reactions become overtaxed by survival concepts, our bodies and minds suffer for it.
This is why we need to be aware of poverty and it’s root causes. Right now, we have a huge economic gap. So while the primitive needs of the top tiers of society are being easily met, the bottom half lives with a constant primitive mental loop of: FOOD FOOD FOOD, FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT, RUN RUN RUN, FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!!! And it’s stuck there until those four needs are all met in a way that frees our brains up for more abstract concepts.
If we really want to rid ourselves of poverty, and it’s destructive characteristics, then we have to first address these base survival needs. Since we aren’t a hunter-gather society anymore, we need wages that can satisfy the these needs. As the wage gap has increased, the number of people whose mental bandwidth is being overwhelmed with survival messages has also increased. When our base survival needs cannot be met through the current social constructs, we will eventually figure out who to fight to change the system to one where we can better have these needs met.
Now here’s where things get even trickier: If a wealthy, or even just slightly better off, person looks at a ghetto, they see hunger, crime, violence, and too many kids. Since the upper classes have always lived more comfortably, they do not feel these base drives as strongly. They don’t have to since those needs are already being met. Meaning that it is much easier for them to control these instincts. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of us down here that have no problem retaining control over these base instincts. The difference is that when we view things from our own “lower” perspective, we understand what motivates these survival behaviors; even if we don’t agree with an individual’s actions.
This is also why most of the current ideas on combating poverty and its destructive effects don’t work. If you don’t want a kid to look towards a gang as a means of survival, a community center is only a tiny part of the answer. The better solution is to make sure that child’s parent(s) have the financial means to be able to provide the things that the child is seeking through gang activity. Better wages and more reliable working hours, coupled with adequate, nurturing, child care, is a better start. If you don’t want people using drugs and alcohol as a means of escape, don’t just arrest them for it; make sure they have adequate means so that they don’t feel that escape is their only solution. If we can’t make a real living through work, why bother even working?
This is why having good wages and consistent work hours are so vital. Many complain about how many people are making social safety net programs a way of life. However, they do not realize that it wasn’t those of us down here who made that decision in the first place. We aren’t going to just sit back and quietly starve if there is another option and we shouldn’t be expected to. If current wages aren’t covering our needs, that problem should be on the shoulders of our employers. Not the employees, and not the general public.
We need this help sooner rather than later. Companies need people to work for them. In return, we need that work to work for us as well. I’ll use everyone’s favorite whipping boy, WalMart, as an example. Nearly all of their front line employees are part time only; even though nearly everyone would much rather have full time work. At the same time, lines at the registers are getting longer and longer. We have a glut of labor, with a shortage of hiring and wages. This is an easily rectifiable situation that would benefit everyone involved. Higher wages means more income which means more spending. More spending means you can hire even more people, who can then spend even more money, and so on.
My poor brain can’t figure out why we are doing things any other way.