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The brain chemistry of helping the homeless [and throwing stones at homeless people]

Oxytocin, a molecule in our body and in our brain, is pivotal for humans and many other animals to stir feelings of love, connection, empathy and compassion AND is at work in setting up and maintaining our moral sensibilities.

Paul J. Zak, Ph.D, a professor at the Claremont Graduate University, is the leading expert on the chemical. He’s written a book, The Moral Molecule, about his research regarding oxytocin and what all is now known about what the chemical does for us and to us.

At one point in his book, Zak mentions homeless people. I could not resist passing along what Professor Zak had to say in that context:
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. We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts. For some people, teenage girls who get pregnant deserve the same cold shoulder. “You’ve made your bed,” they say, “now lie in it.”

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 in the HOME*  circuit. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.

… [O]xytocin maintains the balance between self and other, trust and distrust, approach and withdrawal. When the brain releases oxytocin, the balance shifts toward empathy, and we contribute resources to help others. When the oxytocin surge fades, we move on from the feeling of empathy, the HOME system resets, and we’re ready to evaluate the next interaction that comes along. When testosterone and other pro-punishment factors take over, we’re ready to throw stones rather than a lifeline.
The Sacramento Bee with its ill-timed, ongoing “crusade of denunciation” of homeless people puts lives at risk since it stupidly removes “a place to be” for hundreds of people without any plan for an alternative place for all but a fraction of the displaced. Chilly weather is coming very soon and in this hostile environment homeless people will suffer and die. More homeless people are at real risk to die than would be otherwise because of the stones-throwing tendencies of the terrible Marcos Breton and his tag-alongs at the Sac Bee.

People ought to empathize with the struggles of homeless people. Unhappily, the totalist wing of the homeless-help industry – led by Loaves & Fishes – puts out donation-seeking newsletters and other material that presents homeless people as pathetic cartoon figures. I think it is the case (and I hope it is the case) that much of the public is repelled by these faked-up depictions. But, then, without real information about what being homeless is like and what homeless people are like, the public resorts to believing age-old hateful stereotypes. And the intentionally-staying-ignorant writers at the Bee blow dog whistles to stoke greater resentment from that large portion of its readership that is similarly ignorant and hate-prone.

Readers: I hope you will listen to the six-minute viddie, below. It is touching. 'Nuff said.


Following (for what it's worth), are links to posts I've written, intending to give people some insight into what I know about homeless life, homeless folk, and in particular, the people I best know, homeless solo men.

"The Big Picture Part I(the good, the bad, and the ugly in Homeless World Sacramento)"
"The Big Picture Part II: The indignities and precarity of being rendered homeless in Sacramento"
"Concern for those who are homeless and mentally ill"
"The gamblers"
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* Stands for “Human Oxytocin Mediated Empathy” circuit.  Per Zak, “Oxytocin, combined with the two feel-good neurochemicals it releases – serotonin and dopamine – actives the HOME circuit. Dopamine reinforces the smile of thanks we get when we treat others well, and serotonin gives us a mood lift. It is this HOME circuit that keeps us coming back and behaving morally – at least most of the time.”

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