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The Biology--and Destiny--of Bullying

March 14, 2001|DEBRA NIEHOFF | Debra Niehoff is the author of "The Biology of Violence: How Understanding the Brain, Behavior and Environment Can Break the Vicious Circle of Aggression" (The Free Press, 1999)

Are the kids who are the butt of everyone's jokes the ones who are most likely to be violent? How could name-calling and rumor-mongering inspire murder? How many more killers are seething among the ranks of the unpopular?

These are the inevitable questions after the allegations that accused Santana High School shooter Charles Andrew Williams was routinely teased and taunted by his peers. Some adults--certainly those who themselves were less than kind as teenagers--insist that bullying is just typical adolescent behavior. Psychologists who have studied the problem cite the quest for status, a culture that accepts domineering behavior as evidence of masculinity, an inability to regulate emotion, the thrill of conflict.

But people who study the brain will tell you that there is a biological reason that cruelty can lead to tragedy: Exposure to social abuse can re-engineer the brain.

Take, for example, a study published in 1998 by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. As part of ongoing work on aggressive behavior in hamsters, the team analyzed the effects of teenage victimization by caging adolescent males for a short period every day with an older bully that chased, attacked and bit them. Bullied hamsters grew up to be bullies themselves, quick to assault smaller, weaker animals. But their tormented adolescence changed their brains as well as their behavior, significantly upsetting the structure and function of two chemical pathways previously shown to be critical to the regulation of aggression.

I'm not arguing that lab animals in a cage are equivalent to human teenagers in a suburban high school--although the kids themselves might appreciate the analogy. Instead, consider the big picture: This study and others demonstrate that life experiences have biological consequences.

Experience and physiology are inseparable because the human brain is born with questions that need answers. Is my world safe? Can other people be trusted? The solutions emerge from the emotional reactions triggered in the body by events in the outside world. Every social interaction, every experience, is recorded in the emotional circuitry of the brain, and this information is used to craft our responses to that world and the people in it. Behavior isn't predetermined, and it doesn't just happen. It is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the brain and the environment.

A flexible brain is adaptable but vulnerable. If the dialogue between the brain and the environment is friendly, we grow up believing that the world is safe, a mind-set that encourages peaceful behavior. But a life lived in a continuous state of crisis produces a defensive nervous system poised to react to a dangerous world, a nervous system taxed to its limits by a hostile environment.

Brain researchers have shown that chronic social stress, particularly the misery visited on the lowly by the high-ranking, is just the sort of insult that hammers at the brain until it's a nervous wreck. Biochemically, the relentless challenges lead to hair-trigger stress responses and persistently elevated levels of stress hormones. Behaviorally, they gradually erode the ability to cope. Petty aggravations start looking like real threats. The more threatened the socially stressed individual feels, the more likely he or she is to get overanxious, depressed or mad enough to want to get even.

Adolescents can't just leave an unfriendly school, meaning that a teenager who's perceived as a social misfit can be trapped in an environment as toxic as an abusive home. They depend on the adults around them to set and enforce limits on bullying.

When we are no longer blind to the consequences of teen cruelty, we might stop being blindsided by teen violence.

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