Using Brain Education to Reduce Poverty and Improve Well-Being

The poverty gap is one of the most pressing issues confronting mankind. Although the number of poor people as defined by the United Nations has gone down from 1.7 billion in 2011 to 1 billion in 2012, the problem persists. One out of three people in the world lives in poverty. Every day, 25,000 people around the world die of hunger or hunger-related causes. In the last two decades, the number of least developed countries (LDCs) — defined by low income, human-resource weakness and economic vulnerability — has increased from 17 to 48.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), with a presence in 171 countries, is making an effort to bridge the gap between rich and poor countries. Two main reasons have helped the growth process: the movements from rural to urban areas, and the spectacular strides of science and technology. In the last eight years, 500 million people increased their annual salary. However, economic progress is not correlated to societal happiness. Some people get richer and some countries get richer; this has been particularly true for such emerging economies as China, India and Brazil. But the poverty gap does not seem to decrease, and that makes our societies unhappy. What is happening?

On January 12 2012, representatives of U.N. agencies and U.N. country missions, neuroscientists, NGO leaders, and global educators had a roundtable discussion at United Nations Headquarters, united in their conviction to eradicate poverty and achieve universal welfare. Co-hosted by the International Brain Education Association (IBREA) and the Korea Institute of Brain Science (KIBS), the event’s conversation focused on the human brain.

We need to look at “new dimensions of poverty and development,” said Georg Gray Molina, chief economist for UNDP – Latin America and the Caribbean. When talking about poverty reduction, “We avoid topics like shame, fear, empowerment, dignity … We have not quite put our fingers on these values in the U.N. yet,” he emphasized. Today we know that GDP and economic growth are not the only indicators of growth. He referred to Robert F. Kennedy’s remarks at the University of Kansas in March, 1968:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl … Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry … the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Dr. Elizabeth Carll, chair of the U.N. NGO Committee on Mental Health, pointed to the link between mental health and poverty. “The biggest enemy of health in the developing world is poverty,” she said, quoting former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. There is no health without mental health, she continued. Mutual interaction between mental health and development can be positive or negative. People living in poverty not only lack financial resources but also have less education, are less able to access health services, face adverse living circumstances and are therefore more prone to mental disorders. People with mental disorders are more likely to fall into poverty, face increased health care costs and see their capacities decreased, leading to less possibilities for employment and so on. These trends happen vice versa as well — the better mental health, the better chances to either prevent poverty or grow out of poverty.

Dr. Joseph LeDoux, a professor at NYU’s Center for Neural Science and director of the university’s Emotional Brain Institute, corroborated this by explaining that the brain’s function includes managing not only thoughts but emotion. He said that if stress, fear, and anxiety kick in, the brain freezes; and when these problems persist, it can become pathological. In those conditions, we cannot grow out of poverty. It’s like a vicious cycle, he emphasized. But the brain can change. We have the capacity to break those patterns or habits.

Indeed, Ilchi Lee, founder and president of IBREA, stressed that, “When people are in despair, they cannot take action.” However, he observed, citing his own country of Korea, so many people and so many societies have grown out of poverty, conflict, and political instability. Why is this? Because they used their brains well. That’s all we need to do in order to solve the poverty gap. “Every brain has love, and every brain desires peace,” said Lee. “Even if no one teaches you this, it’s a certain kind of primal information that everyone has … When each person discovers the huge potential of their brain, they become healthy, happy, and peaceful.” At the same time, he said, we want people around us to be healthy, happy, and peaceful. People realize that they’re truly happy not when they are happy themselves but when everyone around them is. And that’s when our brains are in a healthy, functioning state. “No country, religion, or person can solve the problem of poverty,” Lee said. “It must be humanity. Every human being has a brain, it’s simply a question of how the brain develops and how society helps that process.” The important thing is for people to believe in themselves.

Brain education, IBREA’s tool offered to the U.N. as a means to solve world problems, is a five-stage process of awakening the brain and achieving health, happiness, and peace through breathing and meditation. IBREA believes that direct financial and technical assistance from the outside will not solve the world’s poverty issues. People must change inside, they must unleash their brain’s potential in order for the changes to be lasting and to impact those around them. Only when people have that kind of self-respect and dignity can things really, truly change. Breathing and meditation are the tools for that.

“Sometimes there is resistance to these kinds of things, when it comes to applying them,” said LeDoux, referring to meditation and relaxation methods. “But I’ve been promoting for a long time that kids should be taught stress-reduction techniques as part of daily life, as part of the education system since preschool.” He sees this as a prevention strategy. “The U.N. should engage in this and make people understand that we can prevent stress before it happens, not learn it once you have the problem.”

In a stressful situation such as not being able to feed your children, one simple thing to help is to control your breathing. You do not need any money or other means to do that. LeDoux went on to explain how the autonomic nervous system that controls our body has two components: One, the sympathetic, drives the fight-or-flight response, and the other, the parasympathetic, slows it down. When you control your breathing, you engage the parasympathetic system and reduce the fight-or-flight response. This is something we could all benefit from. We don’t need yoga practices, or vast amounts of money. “When you breathe,” LeDoux concluded, “you can unconsciously control the situation by sending this message to your brain.”

The brain is so outstanding that it can learn just by watching. “It doesn’t require a special technique, you don’t have to learn it, you don’t have to pay any fee. There are so many things we can learn just by watching,” emphasized Ilchi Lee.

For those wondering about the real impact of what might sound too good to be true, Dr. Dan G. Pavel, M.D., Ph.D., director of PathFinder Brain SPECT at the Neuroscience Center, showed the positive results of brain education on three patients. He used a brain-imaging technique called SPECT to prove that the abnormal hyperfunctioning in their brains — showing anxiety, worry, etc. — decreased, and the underfunctioning areas — executive functions, finishing school, improving community life — increased while they showed favorable blood flow in their brains. A video about a brain education program in El Salvador also showed the audience the life-changing impact of the program on a vulnerable group of children in a violent area of San Salvador. Through brain education, they recovered their joy, their hope, their goals, and their confidence to achieve them.

Lee reminded the audience that, in the end, the most important element in brain education is hope. When people are in despair, it’s difficult to take action — or, as LeDoux showed us, the brain freezes. If we look at history, many countries have recovered from difficult situations. We also see an endless list of examples of people overcoming adversity and being very successful. “What really matters is hope,” Lee reiterated. That’s the key to use our brain to its greatest potential. In the midst of hope, we create plans. With hope, the plans we set are clear and viable. And through the process of actualizing those plans, our greatness turns up and our brains begin to open up and breathe.

Lee went on to say that 2012 is a year of hope. In one year, 58 heads of state are being elected, and, with good plans and the responsibility of the people to realize the potential of their own brains and hold their leaders accountable, we can drive the change we all want to see in the world. The way to resolve the issue of poverty and to achieve universal welfare is through the spirit of all people and through using our brains well, he reiterated. “When we know how to use the full potential of our brain, we’ll create a new future.”

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