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Bullying Wired into the Brain

Mental Health

Recent studies show that bullies, in addition to lack of control, experience a pleasure response in reaction to witnessing pain. Learn more about antisocial behavior, personality disorders and mental health in this health blog.

Here’s something to weaken Dr. Freud’s theory that all antisocial behavior comes from thinking about your mother. A study out of the University of Chicago discovered that sadistic kids may actually have different brain wiring than their more civilized peers. To reach this conclusion, scientists found eight bona fide bullies between the ages of 16-18, chosen because they met mental health criteria for an average of 7.5 aggressive symptoms. These symptoms included such behaviors as forcing sex on others, starting fights using a weapon, conducting theft while confronting the victim, and displaying cruelty to people and animals. All the subjects had acted on at least one of these symptoms by age four.

Of course, it doesn’t take a neurologist to figure out that toddlers who force sex on others have something askew. Nevertheless, the research team forged ahead and hooked the subjects to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment so they could watch their brains as the subjects, in turn, watched short videos of various sorts of torture to anonymous hands and feet. The researchers also performed MRIs on eight “normal” control subjects who watched the same videos.

The research team had expected to find that the areas of the brain that allow emotional self-regulation (the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction) were impaired in the bullies (these brain areas help people to control anger, for instance, and to resist impulses), and indeed, that’s just what they found. But what they didn’t expect to find is that the bullies, in addition to lack of control, experienced a pleasure response in reaction to witnessing pain. “It just dumbfounded us,” said study co-author Dr. Benjamin Lahey.

Both the control group and the bullies showed brain activation in the pain centers — the anterior cingulate cortex, insula and somatosensory cortex — on seeing the videos. According to Dr. Lahey, this indicates that all the subjects actually empathized with the victims — they “felt their pain.” In fact, the bullies had more of a pain response than the control group did. Again, this would seem to indicate that the bullies were more empathetic than the controls, except that the bullies also showed activation in the pleasure/reward centers of the brain — a startling finding.

As co-author Jean Decety explains, “They do, so to speak, share the pain of others. But instead of finding it negative, they enjoy it.

Dr. Lahey adds, “They’re not only indifferent to the pain, they love it — maybe. If that is true, they are getting positively reinforced every time they bully and are aggressive to other people.”

Dr. Decety points out that the typical intervention programs that rely on punishment and negative reinforcement won’t and don’t work with this group because bullies may actually enjoy the pain of punishment.

“If you enjoy it, you do it again,” Decety said.

This finding, if verified (remember, the study only involved 8 people), creates a dilemma for youth workers and therapists who believe that with a bit of discipline, tough kids can “shape up.” In fact, it seems that with such discipline, tough kids will most likely grow up to have full-scale sadistic personality disorders. And if you subscribe to the “boost their self-esteem to make them kinder, gentler souls” school of thought, this research should shatter all those illusions, too. So what do these results indicate about how to intervene with aggressive youth?

The research team is confident that their findings … “will help us better understand ways to work with juveniles inclined to aggression and violence.” But as a prophetic psychologist, Dr. Michael Eslea, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire in England points out, “A better understanding of the biological basis of these things is good to have, but the danger is it causes people to leap to biological solutions — drugs — rather than other behavioral solutions.”

Right now, kids who suffer from “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” (yes, they really call it that — nicknamed ODD for short) get prescribed mild anti-psychotic medications that essentially numb them and impart a horrifying array of side effects. (They don’t get better — they just get emotionally flattened.) It seems likely that the drug companies will use the study results to get to work on new, more targeted solutions.

Are behavioral interventions possible when bullying seems to be biologically based? Perhaps the medical establishment can take a clue from the wisdom of dog whisperers. Recalcitrant dogs used to get trained with severe discipline, with yelling, punishment, and hitting with newspapers. The result was that the dogs got even more vicious, or else they cowered and lost all their spunk.

But now, in these days of dog whisperers, positive reward has almost totally replaced the negative reinforcement approach in enlightened canine training circles. The idea is to make the reward for good behavior much more pleasurable than the reward for bad behavior — and the approach does seem to transform the most vicious mutts into lap puppies. Perhaps the wisdom of the dog whisperer can be co-opted by parents and teachers to help “bad kids” act in more acceptable ways — it’s just a matter of figuring out what stimulates pleasure for ODD kids even more than beating up their playmates.


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