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Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?

Five years ago Lauretta Brennan was a single mom on welfare with a pack-a-day smoking habit, stuck in a “bad” relationship and living in the South Boston projects where she grew up.

Now, she’s still living in the projects with her young son, but the bad boyfriend is gone and Brennan’s got a job as an administrative assistant after receiving a business management degree. And she quit smoking.

Her childhood in the projects was marked by alcoholism and violence all around, Brennan said; “having no adult role model was the norm, being with a man who’s ignorant, that was the norm.”

Lauretta Brennan graduated from Bunker Hill Community College with an Associates Degree in Business Management in June 2013 (Courtesy)

Lauretta Brennan graduated from Bunker Hill Community College with an Associates Degree in Business Management in June 2013 (Courtesy)

But now, thanks to a novel program that uses the latest neuroscience research to help women dig themselves out of poverty, Brennan says: “I don’t want to live off welfare. I want to make money and be around people who work and go to school. In five years, the program got me to think more like an executive — I have goals, I’m an organizer managing my family well. I’m not scared anymore.”

This shift in thinking — from chaotic, stressed-out, oppressed and overwhelmed to purposeful and goal-oriented — may not sound like brain science. But it fits into an emerging body of research that suggests that the stress of living in poverty can profoundly change the brain: it can undermine development and erode important mental processes including executive function, working memory, impulse-control and other cognitive skills.

To fix that damage, the new thinking goes, people must engage in activities and practices that strengthen this diminished functionality and, exploiting the brain’s ability to change (plasticity in neuroscience lingo) re-train themselves to think more critically and strategically.

“Poverty whacks executive function and executive function is precisely what’s needed to move people out of poverty,” says Elisabeth Babcock, chief executive of the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston-based group that draws on the latest brain research to help families achieve economic success. “What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so ‘sticky.'”

In a recent paper, “Using Brain Science To Design New Pathways Out Of Poverty,” Babcock makes the case that living in an impoverished environment “has the capacity to negatively impact the decision-making processes involved in problem-solving, goal-setting and goal attainment.” In other words, this type of stress can “hijack” the brain.

As other researchers, including Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, have noted, this chronic vise of pressure — to pay the bills, function at work, raise the kids, and simply survive in an atmosphere rife with social bias and harsh living conditions — “places extraordinary demands on cognitive bandwidth.” Babcock writes:

“The prefrontal cortex of the brain — the area of the brain that is associated with any of the analytic processes necessary to solve problems, set goals and optimally execute chosen strategies — works in tandem with the limbic system, which processes and triggers emotional reactions to environmental stimuli…When the limbic brain is overactive and sending out too many powerful signals of desire, stress, or fear, the prefrontal brain can get swamped and the wave of emotion can drown out clear focus and judgement…”

How does this play out in real life? Chuck Carter, senior VP of research at Crittenton Women’s Union, explains:

“One of the things the brain science brings is something of an ‘aha’ in terms of why things are sometimes harder than we expect them to be. When you’re looking at a family that is struggling and making decisions that you don’t really understand, having that research helps you reassess…it adds another perspective. A lot of nonprofit organizations look at the social determinants [of poverty] but not a lot look at the science that says, ‘What else is at play?’

“I think that, on the ground, it gives us creative ways to think about the work and how we might approach it…Often families are in a lot of crises…and they feel they need to do things ‘right now.’ So, for instance, we’ve got a family, and they’re in a hallway and they’ll have to talk to the case manager ‘right now.’ And we ask whether it’s a true emergency, and if not, can we talk about this the next morning, and not in the hallway. It’s a problem with executive function and poor impulse control, but we can help them slow down and figure out the right time to figure this out and what information do they need. It’s about not responding so impulsively in other parts of their lives. So, in thinking about what to do with money, it can be a question of, ‘Do I buy cigarettes now or save the money for some new furniture when I move?'”

So how do you begin to fix all of this?

I asked Babcock a bit about the science behind her organization’s Mobility Mentoring program, in which low-income — mostly single — mothers apply to get training, professional mentoring, financial and other support for three to five years, in hopes of attaining economic independence.

Here, edited, is our discussion:

RZ: What does the research say about how poverty changes the brain? And how does a “hijacked” brain function compared to a brain not experiencing intense, chronic stress?

EB: Poverty hits what scientists call our executive functioning skills: our ability to problem-solve, set priorities and goals, juggle and multi-task, focus and stick to things. And it does this in at least two very important ways. First, the stress of dealing with new problems every day and never having enough to make ends meet overwhelms our heads and swamps us. It overloads the circuits in our brains and compromises our decision-making in the moment. Continue reading