It is hard to believe that you wouldn’t stop and recognize one of your loved ones homeless on the streets the way that a recent video by the New York City Rescue Mission demonstrates. However, according to social psychology research out of Princeton, it’s actually not surprising because of how our brains process images of homeless individuals. Stereotyping and prejudice have been related back to a lack of activation in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, usually very active when recognizing other people, particularly faces, and reward processing.1 While images of all other groups of people activated the MPC, the brain was only activated in places associated with recognizing objects when presented with images of homeless individuals.
The scenario presented by the video combined with the proposed neurological basis behind prejudice brings up a few interesting points regarding our treatment of the homeless. If the invisibility of the homeless in the United States is not only due to circumstance, such as temporary homelessness, and our own willful ignorance, how do we begin to empathize with these individuals? After all, without empathy, it would be much more difficult to perceive actual identities when addressing issues like those facing the criminal justice system. Many artists, such as John Kraintz a formerly homeless Sacremento resident, have taken on this task, portraying the stories and faces of homeless individuals, asking us to perceive them as people rather than objects.2 There is little evidence as to the success of such tactics, but at the very least it is vital that we as a society become aware of the invisible among us.