Sunday, July 17, 2011

Brain Drain

A really interesting article on brain function appeared in the Atlantic recently. The author intends mainly to show that criminals may not be as culpable as we consider them to be, but his arguments can easily be applied to the poor as well.

Among other things, he writes:

Genes are part of the story, but they’re not the whole story. We are likewise influenced by the environments in which we grow up. Substance abuse by a mother during pregnancy, maternal stress, and low birth weight all can influence how a baby will turn out as an adult. As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can impede mental development, as can the physical environment. (For example, the major public-health movement to eliminate lead-based paint grew out of an understanding that ingesting lead can cause brain damage, making children less intelligent and, in some cases, more impulsive and aggressive.) And every experience throughout our lives can modify genetic expression—activating certain genes or switching others off—which in turn can inaugurate new behaviors. In this way, genes and environments intertwine.

How many of us are guilty of uncharitable thoughts about our charitable giving? Do we give freely of our time and treasure, with love for those we serve, or do we feel in our heart of hearts that they aren't truly deserving because of their attitudes or choices? If someone is struggling with an addiction, are we less inclined to help them? What about someone who is fired from job after job for being late or insubordinate? What about the attitudes that are shaped by a lifetime of poverty: the hopelessness, the resentment, the depression and apathy?

Having struggled briefly with depression myself, I have a whole new understanding and compassion for others in that situation. It took every bit of strength I had to cart the kids from activity to activity. Sometimes I would sob while driving (very dangerous.) I functioned like an automaton, cooking dinner, putting it on the table, and eating it in silence. My relationships suffered, I lost all my creativity, and everything felt as if it took so much more effort than it was worth.

The scariest part was the feeling that I had completely lost control of who I was. I didn't WANT to scream at my children over every little thing. Yet I watched myself do things I didn't want to do, and had no power to stop.

If you can, imagine growing up in an environment that alters your very brain chemistry. Physical or sexual abuse, maternal drug use, mineral deficiencies, and lack of access to health care can shape behavior by altering the normal pathways in the brain. This can make people more aggressive or impulsive, impair their reasoning, or increase the likelihood that they will commit a crime or use drugs.

It would be nice if we were all dealt a fair hand, but that simply isn't the case. The fact is that those in impoverished areas have to work twice twice as hard (if not more) to achieve success as those of us born to privilege, and there is less margin for error. In many cases the problems we encounter (abuse, illness, mental disorders, job loss, natural disasters,) or the bad choices that we make, cause only temporary setbacks in our lives. We have a network that assists us in recovering. The poor not only encounter more problems (due to both environmental and physical factors) but have less ability to recover and less assistance, too.

This doesn't mean that we should write off bad choices or give blindly without considering how the money is being used. Whether someone steals because of dysfunctional brain chemistry or lack of education or desperation, stealing is still wrong. As a society, we can't tolerate behavior that harms our framework of individual rights. However, I feel strongly that our approach should reflect an understanding of the root causes and address them appropriately.

Tying food or housing assistance to behavior compliance doesn't help someone when their problem is physical. The more I work with at-risk populations, the more I have come to believe that access to heath care is the primary need, and that housing and food assistance will be less necessary if populations are healed from addictions and mental disorders. One of the many reasons I like Catholic Charities is that they have a comprehensive program to help people spiritually, physically and emotionally.

I have always wondered how those in prison ministry are able to love those who are unlovable. Perhaps they understand intuitively what science is just beginning to grasp: that people are more than their choices, more than their circumstances or desires. God, who sees into the heart of each person, loves each of us with an abiding and consuming love -- enough to die for us. That sort of love is a hallmark of Christian faith, and something that I hope to cultivate in my own life much more deeply through compassion and forgiveness, especially of those who I don't believe deserve it.


My Feminine Mind said...

Thank you for this beautiful post. Reminds me of the words of JPII, "You are not the sum total of your weaknesses and failures. But rather, you are th sum total of the Father's love for you."

Rae said...

Last night my husband and I were talking about how hard it was for us to catch up from a really bad time of unemployment/depression/sickness and how we couldn't imagine how it would have even been possible to pull things back together without all of the blessings of having college degrees and no criminal records etc. etc.

I have no idea how any reasonable person could expect most of the poor to be able to improve their own situations, and now that you've pointed it out, I guess that applies equally to criminals.