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Brain Signals Show the Average Person Doesn't Think of Homeless People as Human Beings

Read an extract from journalist Maeve McClenaghan's book 'No Fixed Abode: Life and Death Among the UK’s Forgotten Homeless', published today.
September 17, 2020, 8:15am
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Photo: Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo

The following is an extract from No Fixed Abode: Life and Death Among the UK’s Forgotten Homeless, an in-depth study of the UK’s current homelessness crisis, which is published today.

Written by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Maeve McClenaghan, whose Dying Homeless project was nominated for the Orwell Prize for Journalism, the book explores the devastating effects of the UK’s housing crisis and challenges the idea that homelessness in this country is inevitable or impossible to solve.

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Images courtesy of Picador

In a cupboard-like room in the brutalist, grey, concrete building of University College London, Dr Lasana Harris, a lecturer in social cognition and experimental psychology, was explaining why a question about broccoli could be the answer to how we dehumanise homeless people.

“Sometimes it just takes a simple question like that to change the way people think,” he grinned. His big smile, coupled with a casual T-shirt, made it easy to forget Lasana was an internationally respected professor, though while we talked a student waited patiently on a plastic chair outside his office door, hoping to consult him.

Around 12 years ago, as a young doctoral graduate, Lasana had stumbled onto an idea that had shaped the course of his research ever since. Working at Princeton University, in the USA, he had been working on a project about people’s perceptions of various images. He had developed a test: one by one undergraduates were shown to an MRI scanner. They lay down, their head and shoulders surrounded by the scanner’s tomb-like tube. Images would flick up on a screen before them for six seconds at a time – picture after picture of people who looked archetypal: a businessman in a suit, an old person in a comfy cardigan, a homeless person with a sleeping bag. Dozens of photos. As each image flicked by, the scanner would take readings of activations in the brain, registering blood-oxygen levels. The activated areas of the brain showed which parts of the brain were being used at what time.

The experiment was designed to see if we receive unique brain signals when we see different types of people, but when Lasana ran the data what he found was astonishing.

For each of the photos, the students’ medial prefrontal cortex had been activated just as he had expected, but with the photos of homeless people a completely different part of the brain had been activated: the left insula and the right amygdala. Lasana held his breath. These parts of the brain were sparked when someone sees an object, not a person. “The neural evidence supports the prediction that extreme out-groups may be perceived as less than human,” Lasana wrote in the resulting research paper. People saw homeless people as objects.

Excited, Lasana repeated the study again and again. It kept showing the same thing. And this wasn’t just particularly callous people thinking like this; it was shockingly pervasive. “If you’re a regular person off the street and we stick you in this MRI, the chances are you’ll display this dehumanisation,” Lasana explained.

Now, more than a decade later, he was still working on this issue: “We weren’t looking for it, which is the funny thing with science. It was just an accidental finding, but it ended up being something significant, and I’ve spent my entire career following it. It’s called dehumanised perception. It’s the idea that, typically, when you encounter other people, you spontaneously try to figure out what they’re thinking, and you do this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it allows you to explain and predict their behaviour, but secondly it allows you to impression manage – you get a sense of what they think of you. As human beings we care a lot about what other people think of us, even strangers. What dehumanised perception captures is a failure to do so, so that’s what we see typically when we see homeless people. We think it is because people engage in empathy avoidance – you make a prediction that thinking about that person’s mind is going to be uncomfortable, or sad and depressing; you may not feel like you have the capacity to help them. So instead of feeling guilty and terrible, you just fail to think about their mind at all.”

I thought back to the first time I had gone to meet Jon [Glackin, founder of Streets Kitchen] at a Streets Kitchen event. That had been me, scared to know what I’d find, panicked about how I would talk to someone who was sleeping rough. Their lives were so totally different to mine, I didn’t know where to start. I knew for sure that had Dr Harris scanned my brain that first day he would have found me switched off to their humanity, seeing things and objects far different from me. And then I’d met Richard and David and Angie. And I realised how much we had in common, how we weren’t existing in two different worlds, but one.

“It is a strangely culturally specific phenomenon,” Lasana continued. “We see this dehumanisation happening towards people that are homeless in Western meritocratic societies, and it may be something to do with that idea that if you are struggling it is your own fault.”

“The pull yourself up by the boot-straps idea?” I chipped in. “Exactly,” he smiled, explaining how, in the USA and the UK, the pervasive narrative is that you are the master of your own destiny, an idea often proffered as the positive “American dream” but one which comes with the insidious underbelly of blame if things go wrong.

Elsewhere things were different. “In Japan the studies show a much higher level of empathy towards the homeless, manifesting not as disgust but pity. And that might be because it is a country that has experienced extreme economic and natural disasters. Many people have found themselves homeless so they can empathise with others.”

The issue, Lasana explained, was that the empathetic void, that lack of recognition of another person’s very humanity, can manifest itself in different ways. “The dehumanised get both active and passive harm: we ignore them – that is the passive harm – but we will also actively attack them.”

It was this kind of dehumanisation that could explain the terrible things humans do to one another: the Rwandan genocide, colonialism, human slavery, the Holocaust. “Yes,” I interjected. “I’ve heard about that dehumanising model being applied – you know, on the far end of the scale, to describe how people come to commit atrocities, crimes against humanity.” “It is not that far, actually,” said Lasana, “They are all part of the same psychological processes – we think they are exactly the same. The processes you have when you pass a homeless person on the street are the same processes that we think are active when you’re committing genocide. The behaviour may seem very different, but in terms of what is happening in the brain, we think they are exactly the same.”

As Lasana spoke, my mind drifted to the haunting image of a red outline on a brick wall. Michael Cash, a skinny, bearded 32-year-old had been sleeping rough since his mother’s death 12 years earlier. He was sitting outside a shop in Teesside when a man walked up to him and sprayed him with red paint from a water pistol, leaving a halo of red and a ghostly patch of negative space on the wall behind him. The assailant, Aaron Jones, had posted a video of the attack on Facebook. In it his voice could be heard saying: “This is how we deal with the beggars on the street. He’s not even a beggar. There he is, sprayed to death.” He didn’t know how true those words were. Four days later Michael killed himself in a nearby graveyard. He had refused to report the incident to the police.

Aaron Jones was convicted of assault. The judge heard how he had taken umbrage at people begging in the town and had posted a photo of Michael before, with the caption: “It’s about time this spice head got moved, smile for the camera.” I could only imagine that Aaron hadn’t seen a person when he aimed his paint-filled water pistol at Michael – he’d seen a beggar, “a spice head”, an object. The attack seemed to be as much on the concept of “the homeless” as anything that Michael had personally done.

I had heard story after story of similar cruel acts. The man sprayed with water by train station attendants. The drunken party-goer who drop-kicked his entire weight into an unsuspecting person’s tent. The people that urinated on those sleeping rough. Those that set people’s sleeping bags on fire, their victims prostrate and unsuspecting inside. An Instagram account, set up under the name Local.nittys, that posted video after video of homeless people being verbally assaulted or hurt. One man sprayed a homeless person with a fire extinguisher while friends, filming on phones, laugh hysterically. In another, a man used an acoustic guitar to whack a homeless man slumped unconscious and unsuspecting on a bench. The anonymous account garnered 12,300 followers before it was taken down.

The lack of empathy Dr Lasana was documenting explained a lot, but the fact that it was so common, almost a natural occurrence, scared me. Were we hardwired to dehumanise the homeless? I took a deep breath. “Is there . . . Is there some way to retrain our brains?” I asked nervously.

As it turned out, the way to get a different result was baffling in its simplicity. While his participants in the MRI scanner looked at the photographs of rough-sleepers, Lasana asked them an easy question: whether the person in the image would like broccoli or carrots. Suddenly the data changed, the subjects started to see the homeless people as humans. “To think about the vegetables, you have to get inside of their heads,” he explained, “and that is the crux of empathy.

“The vegetable question showed the issue isn’t hardwired in the brain – it is exactly the opposite. The brain is extremely elastic and can adapt very easily. So if you’re in a soup kitchen and you’re feeding people, you’re going to see them more as people.” Indeed, after taking subjects to soup kitchens between scanning their brains, Lasana noticed massive differences in his result.

I sat up straighter. That finding excited me. If you could reawaken people’s perceptions of homeless people as human, maybe you could improve the lives of those who found themselves on the streets.

As I left Lasana’s office, I thought about how guilty I had been of dehumanising those who I walked past. How often I had switched off my human empathy, perhaps as a coping mechanism to allow me to simply walk down the street without my heart breaking. Now I realised that the consequence of that shutdown was taking its toll on society. As inequality rose year on year, we had started erasing from view whole subsets of our neighbourhoods.

That same thinking, the lack of compassion, had tipped over into public policy. I had heard how legal action was being taken to regularly castigate people living homeless. People were being arrested and charged for sleeping rough, or for suspected begging.

Often, the criminal justice system was relying on the Dickensian Vagrancy Act 1824, which made it a criminal offence to sleep “in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence”. The law had been introduced to deal with growing homelessness after the Napoleonic wars but had later been criticised by abolitionist William Wilberforce for being far too broad and blunt a tool. It had been repealed in Northern Ireland and Scotland but still remains in force in England and Wales.

In recent years things had gone further, with the introduction of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) in 2014 which made it possible to ban people from certain areas of a town or city. Now those orders were being routinely used to stop people from sleeping rough or begging, and led to a £100 on-the-spot fine or a prosecution and £1,000 bill if you couldn’t pay there and then. Those banning orders could keep people from the very areas where the few homeless services were offered, preventing them from accessing soup kitchens or medical help. Across the country, 10,000 on-the-spot fines were handed out in one year alone.

In Conwy, Wales, a 55-year-old woman was sent to prison for six weeks for begging outside a shop after she’d already been banned on a criminal behaviour order. Jon had been furious when he had heard about that case. “There were no complaints of anti-social behaviour about this woman. She was banned from sitting down for ten minutes. That’s probably where her social life is,” he told a national paper. “This is happening more and more across the UK. They say they’re trying to rid the town centre of the blight of beggars and whatnot, but it’s mainly an attack on homeless people. It’s just to remove poverty from the streets.”

I feared he was right. I had collected a long list of similar cases. Like the man in Gloucester who was sent to prison after he repeatedly broke an order banning him from begging in the city centre. The judge at his trial admitted he was conflicted in the ruling: “it is a persistent disobedience of court orders but I will be sending a man to prison for asking for food when he was hungry”, he said. He did it anyway. In Carlisle, a 33-year-old man had to pay £105 in court costs after he was found to have been begging. The man argued he had just been sitting in the city centre when a child dropped two £1 coins into his lap.

Another man had been fined £150 after the police caught him begging – in court it had been referred to as “gathering money for alms”. The fine was being taken out of his benefits, leaving him with less and less money each month, ironically pushing him closer to begging again. So people sleeping rough were being fined, taking the little money they had, or imprisoned. The consequence was that many of those sleeping rough no longer trusted the police or wider authorities to look out for them.

Their very presence had become a crime. Danger was all around, from the public to the police. People sleeping rough were being beaten up, fined, ridiculed and imprisoned. But I was soon to learn that the threats were not just external – they came too from other people also experiencing homelessness. Across the country, people were bedding down knowing those around them had mental health issues or else were high on drugs or drink. Each night became a gamble. Sometimes you lost.

No Fixed Abode: Life and Death Among the UK’s Forgotten Homeless is available to buy now.