Q&A with Jessica Sharp: How poverty can cause physical changes to the brain

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Jessica Sharp, Founder and Chief Educator at Sharp Brain Consulting, held a webinar hosted by Mission West Virginia called “Poverty and the Brain,” where Sharp explained how living in poverty can cause physical changes to the brain. After the webinar, Sharp joined WBOY for a quick Q&A.


Q: Can you give a short summary of what poverty can do to the brain?

A: Living in poverty has physical impacts on the brain, and this is true if young people grow up in poverty. That means that they’ve lived in poverty for their whole lives or for most of their development, so that’s really [ages] zero to six, but also for young people who have lived in poverty during stages throughout their development.

Essentially, not to get too science-y here, it makes the part of the brain that is responsible for our fight or flight response, so basically our threat response, it makes it more jittery, if you will.  So, the way I like to explain this is to think of it like a guard in front of a castle, and the guard’s job, obviously, is to keep that castle safe, and so it is looking around all the time to make sure that there is nothing that is going to make the castle not be safe.

And so, for folks who are growing up in poverty or who live in poverty, their guard is basically bigger and more jittery, and things that are not really a threat may feel more like a threat. Then, that guard is going to act very quickly, in terms of the brain, it’s going to act in milliseconds and basically tell the rest of the brain to go, go, go.

And, while this is, in and of itself, not great, it becomes even more problematic because the part of the brain that basically makes us adults and separates us from all other mammals—so it helps us with thinking into the future and planning and organizing—that part of the brain, when our amygdala, so basically our guard in front of our castle, when it takes over, our prefrontal cortex, which is right behind our forehead, it doesn’t have time often to engage, and it is basically asleep.

A simple demonstration of where the parts of the brain mentioned are located.

To go even further with our castle metaphor, think of if the king or queen was up there, kind of waiting to make a decision, and the guard should be calling the queen to say, hey, I think that this thing is happening, should I get everyone together to attack it?  Well, when we’re living in poverty, we are more likely to have that guard not even call the queen and just go and act.

What that looks like in real life and not analogies terms is that for folks and young people, as well as adults that live in poverty, they are more likely to be impulsive, more likely to not necessarily think through the decisions they’re making, and it’s just a function of the brain. It doesn’t mean that they’re a good person or bad person or smart person. It just means that they are more likely to be impulsive and not necessarily be able to think through their actions.

Q: So, you can kind of see how that would affect someone’s learning then?

A: One thousand percent. For students living in poverty in an academic setting, it has some pretty significant implications. Our young people who are living in poverty, they know fewer words, so they are reading fewer books. They’re more likely to watch television, and while there is some great academic television, shows like “Spongebob” don’t necessarily enhance us academically.

They’re more likely to miss school. They’re more likely to be just academically behind, and so that can become a significant issue. They can become more and more behind.  They’re more likely, again, to be impulsive, and so that can be potentially frustrating for the adult, the teacher, and they might be more likely to get in trouble, and so you’ve got two separate issues. You’ve got a discipline issue that may show up, but then you also have an academic issue, and so it can create challenges to a student being successful in an academic space.

Q: One big stereotype against poor people is that a lot of people just think that they’re just lazy. That they need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and just do the work, sort of thing. What does your research say about that mentality?

A: Yeah, so my research says that that’s wrong. I mean, some people are lazy. Some people that are rich are lazy, right. So, one group, people in poverty, are not all the same. So, there are certainly some lazy people who live in poverty just like there’s lazy people everywhere. But on the whole, the research doesn’t make that story be true.

What the research tells us is as follows: The research tells us that people who live in poverty are often working harder.  So, I work at a non-profit, and I do training, so I’m sitting at a desk most of the time. I’m not doing anything crazy. But, if I’m living in a low-income environment, I’m more likely to work a physically taxing job. I’m likely to have to work more than 40 hours a week because I may need the money if I’m getting paid hourly versus salary.

People who live in poverty often have to be more strategic because if I’ve got two bills that are due at the same time, and I only have money for one, it’s mentally taxing to have to figure out what I’m going to do with that, and just from the way that our brain is set up when we’re living in poverty, it’s not that poor people are making bad decisions. It is that people are making decisions with limited resources.

And, what we know is that the best way to move people out of poverty is certainly to provide education, but it’s essentially to help them get more money because I can give somebody education all day long—particularly adults. We’re talking about adults here. But, if I don’t help them necessarily to get another job—I go to 20 financial literacy classes, but I still work at Walmart, where I only work 38 hours a week, and I only make X amount of money—it’s just going to be harder for me to move out of poverty because I have all the bills. 

And, this idea of “pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” the hard thing is our society is not set up for folks to have bootstraps, or to be able to pull them up high enough to be able to get out of poverty. The system is just not set up that way. There’s this concept of economic mobility, which is essentially the ability for someone to move out of poverty and up the income ladder, and it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to be able to move out of poverty.

If you are a high school student, and you’re doing well academically, and you want to go to college, there are barriers even to that. You have to fill out the FAFSA, which means you have to have WiFi, and you have to know what forms to do and what website to go to, and you’re going to have to try to get a government loan that you’ll have to pay off forever.

I mean, there are a lot of barriers to moving out of poverty. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen, it just means that society, and government and people that are in power and have financial resources have to come alongside and support people in poverty, and that’s why I’m a fan of nonprofits and supporting them because people can’t move out of poverty by themselves.

Q: So, who are those people who end up making it and get themselves out of poverty? 

A: It’s really hard to know. My dad got himself out of poverty, but that was 30 years ago, and it’s much harder now. It’s hard to know who are the people that move themselves out of poverty. Oftentimes, it is people who are able to go to college because that four-year degree can often open doors for them, so that’s often how people get out of poverty.

Sometimes moving out of a more rural area can help just because if you’re able to financially to move, because there’s costs associated with moving, but if you’re able to move where there’s more jobs and more opportunities, maybe you can switch jobs and make more money, that kind of thing. But, it’s harder to move out of poverty if you’re in a rural area. 

Q: At the end [of the webinar], you said that there’s a silver lining, that your brain can change. Can you tell me more about that?

Jessica Sharp, Founder and Chief Educator at Sharp Brain Consulting

A: The really good thing about our brains is that they are designed to change. They change every day, quite frankly, and they can grow and change all the time. So, in terms of people who live in poverty, there are things we can do from a brain perspective to help basically—going back to my metaphor—calm that little guard down and allow the brain to make decisions that we’re going to be happy with later.

Honestly, meditation is a really, really great way to do that. There’s a lot of research that says that meditation can calm down your amygdala, which is the guard in your brain, and help get more oxygen to this part of your brain, which is the part of the brain that makes you able to make decisions.

So, meditating for three to five minutes per day, four to five times a week, consistently, can really help. There is a slew of apps that help—all of them have free versions, which is great. But, I would recommend meditating regularly because that can really help your brain.

Also for young people—if you’ve got an elementary school student that you’re working with or know that lives in poverty, read a lot of books to them. Take them to a museum or park or something, take them places. Right now, because of COVID, there are a lot of museums, and zoos and all kinds of things that are doing virtual field trips, so show them the San Diego Zoo, and show them all these animals, because those kinds of exposures are really important, and it can help young people see experiences and career paths that they never really thought of before.

But, one of the big things that we can do to change our brain and just make us more calm is meditation and deep breathing.


Sharp Brain Consulting is a brain-based organizational development firm. It walks alongside organizations to improve their outcomes.

Mission West Virginia changes the lives of youth and families and promotes positive futures by recruiting foster families, providing life skills education and creating community connections.

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