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Your Brain on Bullying

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 21, 2011

A few weeks ago, Boston-based neurological researcher Dr. Martin Teicher participated in a lecture at Harvard on the effects bullying can have on developing young brains.

The Boston Globe covered Dr. Teicher's work in an article published several weeks prior to the lecture. The Globe article noted that young brains can be deeply affected by early physical and sexual abuse. Abused children grow up to display depressive tendencies and self-destructive behaviors at a greater frequency than people who were not subjected to such treatment. Their brains reflect structural and chemical differences from the brains of people whose early lives were free of abuse.

As it turns out, the article reported, Dr. Teicher's work indicates that the brains of bullied teenagers--the targets not of sexual or physical abuser early in life, but rather of "peer abuse"--can similarly exhibit physical changes.

An adolescent brain is a busy place: It's packed with far more neurons than will remain once the brain's neural wiring takes the shape it will retain into adulthood. In this way, the brain of a teenager is over-prepared for an array of possibilities. A teen can take up different skills and hobbies and become proficient at them much more easily than older individuals. In a manner of speaking, the experiences of a child or a teen shape the way that the brain will crystallize.

But while positive experiences may nurture a youth, traumatic ones will damage him deeply, and probably permanently. The research is clear: Abuse a child, and the process of his brain formation is disturbed. "By revealing the internal physiological damage that bullying can do, researchers are recasting it not as merely an unfortunate rite of passage but as a serious form of childhood trauma," the Globe article said.

When Dr. Teicher subjected teens who had been bullied to brain scans, he was able to see the physical differences in their living brain tissue as compared to the neurological structures of teens who had not been mistreated by their peers.

The bullied teens, the Boston Globe reported, "had observable abnormalities in a part of the brain known as the corpus callosum--a thick bundle of fibers that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and which is vital in visual processing, memory, and more."

Specifically, the article said, "The neurons in their corpus callosums had less myelin, a coating that speeds communication between the cells--vital in an organ like the brain where milliseconds matter."

Clearly, the brain is a delicate organ--and clearly, the way it is built and organized has a powerful, perhaps defining, influence over who we are, how we live, and what the quality of our inner lives will be. How does abuse affect deeper, tinier structures that imaging devices can't distinguish? Moreover, neural structure is only part of the story. What about the way in which brain chemistry can be altered by ongoing traumatic experiences?

Bullied teens, like teens with histories of sexual and physical abuse, have more mental health challenges, anxiety and depression among them. The Globe article noted the work of Tracy Vaillancourt of the university of Ottwa, whose research showed that the brain's chemical balance can be affected by abuse. The long-term effects are profound: Vaillancourt's work indicated that memory problems could be one result. The bigger question, the article pointed out, is how cognitive function might be affected. How does abuse change a person's average mood? How does bullying impact a victim's ability to reason, or alter how his emotions will be processed?

"There may be some subtle neurocognitive difficulties," Teicher told the Globe. "We're currently doing research that will allow us to answer this question better."

The March 21 edition of The New Yorker includes an article on the long-term impact of early life traumas associated with poverty and domestic violence. The article references studies that show how exposure to different stressful factors--parental abuse or abandonment, violence directed at the child or occurring between parents--impacts brain chemistry on a permanent basis.

"Researchers have observed that schoolchildren who experience early trauma find it harder to sit still and follow directions," the article reported. "As teenagers, they are more likely to be drawn to high-risk behaviors. As adults, they often show increased aggression, impulsive behavior, weakened cognition, and an inability to distinguish between real and imagined threats."

The article noted that such patterns of behavior can spread through entire populations: Stressed children grow up to be parents who stress their own children in turn. Physician Nadine Burke, who runs a clinic for people struggling with poverty, told The New Yorker that a people imprinted by stressful early life experiences stamp those same patterns onto the next generation:

"It goes from the individual fight-or-flight adrenaline response to to a social culture where it's, like, 'Oh, black people beat our kids. That's what we do.' "

Dr. Burke was talking about cultural effects on racial demographics. But what about other demographics within society? What about GLBT kids who face family rejection, harassment and violence at school, and then grow up to discover that wider society is also full of bullying aggression directed at them, from bashings in the street to ballot initiatives targeting their right to legal recognition for their families?

It is possible for adults who have been subjected to different forms of abuse in their early life to become happy--and many mistreated people do successfully work to put those experiences behind them. But many grown victims of sexual and physical mistreatment are prone to substance abuse. Their lives may be characterized by negative emotions such as anger, dread, and fear.

Next: Patterns of Suffering


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