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Before Christmas, a survey found that 74 per cent of people were worried about the levels of homelessness in Britain. The survey commissioned by charity Crisis measured attitudes towards the 236,000 people experiencing homelessness across the country today and its findings seemed positive – 61 per cent of people felt “angry, upset or frustrated” about homelessness and 59 per cent said they were more worried now than they were five years ago.

But at the same time, although 57 per cent wanted to do something to help, 68 per cent admitted they didn’t know what to do when they saw someone who is homeless.

But do people feel helpless because their brain has evolved to disconnect from the problem?

Dr Lasana Harris, associate professor of experimental psychology at University College London, studies neurological responses, specifically the way our brains engage with other people and the world around us. He says our minds are “trained to disconnect” when we see a homeless person.

“We’ve developed this as a strategy to help us get through our social environment,” he says. “Most people think, and rightly so, that homeless people are having very negative experiences and constantly suffering. We may not always want to resonate with that suffering. Because of that, we lose sight of the fact that these are just regular people.”

According to his research, our brains automatically censor our perception of homelessness on a biological level to stop us empathising and feeling hopeless.

Now, Harris has made it his mission to find out how to switch our brains back on, restart our empathy and tackle the problem of homelessness by fundamentally
changing our minds.

When you encounter another person, it’s in your best interest to think about what they are thinking,” he explains. “This is something we do effortlessly but it’s actually very complicated.

“The brain regions that support these impulses are in the neo-cortex, the part of the brain that separates us from other animal species. People’s thoughts are invisible – so, we have to infer their thoughts from their behaviour, the environment, our history with that person and what people tend to do in particular circumstances. We do this all the time without thinking, which is what makes dehumanisation so striking. You’re encountering another human being but you’re not getting these processes going, which are really important.”

Harris observes neurological activity through brain scans and should see the neo-cortex light up when participants look at homeless people, just as it does in response to others. But nothing happens.

“People aren’t being seen,” he says. “If I’m a busy person, going through a city like London where there are tons of homeless people, and I have to stop and consider the minds of all of these people, that might make me feel very uncomfortable. Moreover, if I don’t feel like I have the resources to help, there’s nothing I can do to alleviate that suffering. That feeling stays with you. Our brain says instead, if I take a second to stop and think about your suffering it’s going to make me feel bad. So, dehumanisation becomes a kind of emotion regulation strategy.”

A homeless man sits on the floor of a trin station, wrapped in blankets with a cup in front of them
Image credit: Getty images

Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, says Harris’s work is “groundbreaking and profoundly insightful” when it comes to dehumanising homeless people, but believes it raises further questions.

He says: “While we can’t be thinking about everyone’s feelings all the time, it would be a lonely life if we applied this strategy to everyone. So I think it’s interesting to think about how we choose who to care about, and why we might cognitively step over a person sleeping rough.

Is dehumanisation automatic or is there, at some point, some intentionality behind turning off our empathy machines?

“Is it because we think we are not like the homeless man on the street? Are we afraid it’ll cost us something if we engage with his existence, or worry we might feel bad about our part of the inequality problem if we look one another in the eye? Is dehumanisation automatic or is there, at some point, some intentionality behind turning off our empathy machines?

“The answers will better our ability to counter the inequality problem – that is, if deep down, we actually want to look outside our cosy cognitive bubbles.”

The consequences of living in bubbles are all around us, as society in general appears to act increasingly insensitively towards the marginalised. Rough sleepers are not welcome and moved on by authorities without there being the necessary resources to help them properly. Hostels are often inadequate, but homeless people are put there long-term, out of sight and out of mind. Hostile architecture, designed to deter people getting too comfortable in public areas, is becoming a more common sight, and Universal Credit is still the government’s benefits system of choice despite the overwhelming evidence that it is making life for the people it exists to support more precarious.

These are systematic failings, where no one person is to blame. But the root of all of this could be traced down to a molecular level.

The hormone oxytocin is the key driver of feelings like love, empathy, trust and morality. In his book, The Moral Molecule, Paul J Zak, who has the enviable nickname ‘Dr Love’ explains how it determines our behaviour in certain circumstances.

“We readily help kids and cute animals, in part because we know that whatever trouble they’re in, they can’t really be held accountable,” he says. “We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts.

“This tendency to judge rather than help is partly the result of a spot in the prefrontal cortex called the subgenual cortex. It’s full of oxytocin receptors, and it appears to modulate the degree of empathy by regulating the release of dopamine. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.”

It seems that today’s digitally switched-on generation are the worst offenders when it comes to switching off.

“Think about your Facebook,” says Harris. “You probably have a few hundred ‘friends’. But they are casual acquaintances. You aren’t processing them deeply. We’ve developed this as a strategy to help us get through our social environment. And we think a version of this is what’s happening in
the case of homelessness.

“The brains we have now are perhaps the same brains our early ancestors had. But then, there weren’t seven billion people on the planet, so it would have been possible to get inside the heads of everyone you met.

“As the group size started getting bigger, it was to our advantage to not have to think about everybody’s mind because nobody could possibly process that amount of people.

“The current generation is much more susceptible to that because they are much more used to having interactions that aren’t face to face. When an interaction is online, you don’t get a lot of the cues you’d get in reality, so in a way we are being trained to disconnect.”

This sense of disconnect could be at the heart of everything that divides society today. Is there a refugee crisis because people don’t relate to them as fellow human beings? In the Brexit vote, it was areas with relatively low levels of immigration that were most concerned about it.

Miles Hewstone, a University of Oxford professor of social psychology and director of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict, says that Harris’s work has proven that processes are happening at a very basic neural level. But he warns that we shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that these views are unmanageable – because social interactions can slow and change certain brain processes.

He says: “If we design interventions to help people meet members of such stigmatised groups, and get beyond the stereotype and see the person behind the social category, they tone down their judgements and feelings.


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“A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see this in real life, when the brilliant charity Streetwise Opera worked with the choir of New College, Oxford to make music together. My son was a chorister at that time, and he and his fellow singers developed empathy for the homeless participants through this.

Of course these kinds of responses occur, ultimately, in our brains; where else would they occur? But social processes have enormous power to change neural processes, and we should be doing much more to exploit their potential to overcome prejudice.”

This reflects projects Harris ran with the Museum of Homelessness last year. In his experiments, he made participants humanise people by, for example, asking them to consider questions like: ‘Does this person prefer broccoli or carrots?’ He also scanned people’s brain activity before and after speaking to someone sleeping rough. After this kind of interaction, Harris found that participants were far less likely to spontaneously disengage.

So is our humanity something we can turn on and off – if only we found the right buttons to push?

“We’re trying to figure out what brain mechanisms allow us to switch these responses on and off,” Harris says. “We want to make empathy the default response because now, the default response is to switch off entirely. If we’re going to get that to change we need a complete cultural shift.

“It happens the minute you realise these are just regular people then their minds aren’t threatening or scary or depressing. That’s when things start to change.”

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