I read an article the other day that struck me to the core. Its message touched the deepest part of my heart and put me in a state of gut-wrenching sobs. Many of you may know the message, but even with my psychology degrees and time spent learning and teaching about human behavior, I was shocked. Either I had skipped over it, or had never even encountered it.
Here it is in scientific terms.
When a human being senses a threat, resources available for overall executive functions in the prefrontal cortex part of the brain decrease. There is a strong negative correlation between the amount of threat activation and the resources available for the prefrontal cortex. The result is literally less oxygen and glucose available for the brain functions involved in working memory.
Here it is in simple terms.
If a person senses a threat, their brain does not function properly. They are unable to access the parts of their brain that provides intuition and insight. They cannot perform at a normal cognitive level – they can’t critically think or solve problems well. The likelihood of accidental connections increase, so people generalize more, and become more likely to over-react to situations that don’t warrant such a strong reaction. The brain perceives any threat as life-threatening. Although you may not think the situation is life-threatening, your brain reacts as if it is.
Makes sense, right? So let’s put this in the context of a work environment. If an employee feels that their job is constantly at stake, and the risk of providing the wrong answers to a boss increases the threat that they will lose their job, then their brain responds as I mentioned above, and they are unable to provide the very answers that would help them be perceived as competent. Simply put, the threat is the boss who wants answers, and because the brain perceives this threat as another person would perceive a life-or-death situation, then the brain functions shut down, and they are unable to provide the very answers that would help them keep their job. So they perpetuate the threat.
This has huge implications on a work environment, which is what I gravitated towards in my career, yet the implications on the people living in high-crime distressed neighborhoods, or unsafe home environments, is even more severe. As urban ministry leaders, such as our partners, work in distressed neighborhoods to provide mentoring for the purpose of increasing the children’s reading and math levels, these children are up against so much more than a low-rated school or proper supplemental educational help. They are up against the brain’s propensity to protect and defend as it continually perceives threats. In the environments that many of these children live in, they are constantly engaged in threatening situations, such as witnessing crime on their neighborhood streets, unstable and sometimes abusive home lives, and neglect. Encountering these situations on a daily basis impacts their ability to think well. With the help of mentors, they may be able to increase their reading capability to some degree, but they still may not be able to provide correct responses, think critically, or solve problems because of the degree and frequency of threats their brains encounter.
I don’t know if this information is at all new to you, or if it has even struck you at all like it did me. But as citizens of the United States who care about the current and future condition of our country, and especially as Christians who are called to love our neighbor, we cannot close our eyes to this. I humbly ask that you open your heart to these facts and join us at Desire Street Ministries with our partners in both prayer and action in the quest for spiritual and community transformation across the neighborhoods. This is why we support holistic community transformation. We partner with people like Justina Dix of Summerhill Community Ministries in Atlanta, who not only provides mentoring after school, but works with the families to help care-givers parent in a more loving way, provides the kids a safe place to spend their summers instead of on the streets. It’s why we partner with leaders like Bryan Kelly of Common Ground Ministries, who created the Urban Seed Exchange to provide skills training to high school students through an economic development model that provides them an alternative future that may not include college but doesn’t have to include crime.
To me, this information shows the deep, sneaky nature of the enemy at work, and the subtle ways to keep those who are struggling stay in their struggle. Until we see the plight of the poor as a spiritual and systemic battle we are called to address, and that we are called to love our neighbor as image-bearers of God, then our best human efforts will remain minimal in their impact.