Bullies Get Pleasure In Inflicting Pain

Bullies Get Pleasure In Inflicting PainThere seems to be some truth in the fact that bullies make others feel miserable, just to make themselves feel better.  US researchers studying the brain scans of teenagers with a history of aggressive bullying behaviours, indicate that inflicting pain or seeing someone in pain, actually gives them great pleasure.  This may not surprise anyone who has been a victim of bullying, however, Dr. Benjamin Lahey from the University of Chicago and co-author of the study says researchers were dumbfounded by these findings, as they were not what they expected.

According to Lahey, whose study appears in the journal Biological Psychology, the study conclusions surprise, because the prevailing view regarding bullies is that they are cold, calculating and unemotional in their aggression.  In contrast, the study reveals it is not the case and that they care very much.

Working together, Lahey and Jean Decety, also from the University of Chicago , compared two groups consisting of eight adolescent boys each, aged between 16 to 18-years.  One group suffering from aggressive conduct disorder, exhibited disruptive behaviour, such as, starting fights, using weapons, confronting victims and stealing from them, while the other group showed no unusual signs of aggression.

The researchers tracked the brain activity of both groups via functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, during the time they were shown group video clips of pain being inflicted on a person.  They found the brain area linked with feeling rewarded i.e. the amygdala and ventral striatum in the aggressive teens became extremely active, when pain was inflicted on someone.  However, there was little or no activity in the part of the brain that involved self-regulation i.e. the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction, as seen in the other group.

These findings led the researchers to conclude that it is possible the brains of the aggressive teens lit up as they did, because they enjoyed the experience of seeing others in pain as fun, exciting and pleasurable.  Expecting an emotionally indifferent response to pain from subjects with conduct disorder characterized by aggressive, destructive or harmful behavior towards other people and animals, which can also include theft, substance abuse and sexual promiscuity, Lahey feels this hypothesis needs to be tested more, even though the differences between the two groups were strikingly strong.

The strong but highly atypical emotional response in people with conduct disorder to that of a neurotypical person’s concerning pain, can be put down to differences in their brain circuitry.  The fMRI showed the part of the brain responsible for processing emotional reactions (amygdala) and that for self regulation (prefrontal cortex), in this case, for holding back emotions, activated at the same time, showing activity in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex is linked when one sees something painful.  Which is why, when normal people see others in pain or suffering, they immediately respond with negative emotions.  On the other hand, there is a missing connection in children with conduct disorder, who show brain activity in the amygdala and the ventral striatum, the part of the brain that is associated with pleasure and rewards, including food, sex and drug use, leading them to respond positively, excitedly happy to see someone being hurt.  This is because the prefrontal cortex or the part of the brain that controls pleasurable emotions is not activated, and rather than responding with negative emotions, they react positively, simply because they lack the ability to control inappropriate emotions.

A new hypothesis, yet, more study is required before we apply the results to the garden-variety bully roaming elementary and junior high school hallways, keeping in mind that such behavious could also be associated with very poor psycho-social outcomes like poor relationships, incarceration, depression, suicide, according to Dr. Paul Sagerman, Assistant Professor - Pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem , N.C.

The good news is that conduct disorder is relatively uncommon, affecting only 1 to 4% of 9 to 17-year-olds in the United States, with the disorder far more common among boys than girls, peaking in young adolescence, between the sixth and eighth grades, perhaps only to impress peers.  The question is whether bullying is learned behavior that creates pathways in the brain leading to conduct disorder, or is it inherent resulting in aggressive behavior?

fMRI will be useful in early detection and intervention of conduct disorder, while therapy could be useful in helping reprogramme the brain circuitry to prevent it or at the least keep it in control.

 If possible, researchers have their work cut out for them to come up with therapies that deal effectively with conduct disorder.




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