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Your Brain on Bullying

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 21, 2011
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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.

Patterns of Suffering

Anecdotally, as a news aggregator--someone who writes news items reporting on what primary news sources have had to say--I’ve noted a few interesting patterns that seem to recur time and again. Victims of childhood sexual abuse seem often to battle depression, abuse drugs and alcohol, and struggle with careers and relationships.

Curiously, studies about the drug and drinking problems--and other self-destructive behaviors--of sexual minorities mirror those behaviors. Gays smoke more, drink more, and have more risky sex: At least, that’s what various studies claim. Anti-gay religious groups claim that gays do these things because they are gay. I have a different theory.

I say that gays are more prone to do these things because they have been abused and bullied--just as members of other demographics who has been mistreated in such ways are more prone to such problems. I contend that there is a vicious circle at work. Anti-gay pastors, politicians, and organizations justify their legal and social abuses of gays by pointing to gay "promiscuity" and health issues--problems that, I argue, arise because of the bullying gays have endured.

And the reason for the abusive behavior gays suffer? Simple: They are gay. The people who abuse and bully gays feel justified--even obligated--in attacking gays because of anti-gay moral and religious beliefs.

A few months ago I wrote a news aggregate item about research that used brain imaging to show that whether a person is gay or straight does not matter when it comes to how they experience love. According to one scholarly article, the same areas of the brain light up in the same ways regardless of whether a person’s love interest is a member of the same sex or the opposite sex.

The paper, titled The Brain Reaction to Viewing Faces of Opposite- and Same-Sex Romantic Partners, was published Dec. 31, 2010, at PLos One. Two University College London researchers, Dr. Semir Zeki and Dr. John Romaya, designed and carried out medical scanning of a dozen individuals of each gender. Half of each group was straight, and half were gay. Ethnically, the participants were a mix; in age, they ranged from 19 to 47.

"Differences between homosexual and heterosexual brains have been described," both in terms of brain structure and neurological response patterns when subjects become sexually aroused, the paper noted. "But such differential activations as have been described have been in response to sexually arousing stimuli," the paper added, "not in response to the sentiment of love.

"Given the profound similarity in the sentiment of love expressed in the opposite- or same-sex contexts, we hypothesized that we would see no differences when females or males, or heterosexual or homosexual subjects, viewed the face of their loved partners," the researchers wrote.

The very people who call us "sick" because we are gay are making us... well, sick, mentally and physically.

The experiment’s results confirmed their hypothesis, noted an article on the experiment that appeared Jan. 11 at MediLexicon. When the test subjects scrutinized photos of their sexual partners, the medical imaging showed virtually indistinguishable response patterns in their brains. This included activation of pleasure centers, and de-activation of areas of the neo-cortex. All of the research participants said that they were passionately in love with their significant others; the relationships varied in length from several months to more than two decades.

The sexual orientation of the research participants had no bearing on the results. "The pattern of activation and de-activation was very similar in the brains of males and females, and heterosexuals and homosexuals," wrote the paper’s authors. "We could therefore detect no difference in activation patterns between these groups."

When the same research participants looked at photos of friends they were not in love with, no such changes occurred in brain activity. The people in the photos were of the same gender as each participant’s significant other.

The fact that viewing photos led the participants’ pleasure centers to become active, while the portions of the brain responsible for higher-level mental processes such as judgment became less active, invited commentary on the nature of love. "Passionate romantic love, commonly triggered by a visual input, is an all-consuming and disorienting state that pervades almost every aspect of a lover’s life," the paper stated. "Yet human brain imaging studies show that the neural correlates of viewing the face of a loved person are limited to only a few, though richly connected, brain regions."

Homophobia A Habit?

Even as science has showed differences in brain structure between gays and straights--thus supporting gays’ claims that they do not "choose" their sexual orientation and that being gay is natural to them--research has also suggested that homophobia may be partly a matter of how people are hardwired--possibly as a result of how prejudices can become integrated into the brain’s circuitry.

It’s an open question as to what degree anti-gay disgust may be inborn to human beings, and now much may be ingrained by societal lessons. In a sense, homophobia may turn out to be largely a kind of "bad habit" that is instilled into some people’s neural circuitry in the same way other habits are: Through simple, repeated instances of reward and punishment.

But the way in which homophobia is expressed in wider society--everything from violence in the streets to anti-gay laws justified by means of carefully calibrated language that all too thinly disguises an assumption of heterosexual superiority--may be having a deeply destructive impact on entire populations.

It seems to me that every restriction gays face that heterosexuals do not--every extra burden with which we are saddled and under which straights do not struggle; every roadblock set up to impede our progress through life and its stages, such as prosperity and family; every law that defines us as unequal and every ballot initiative in which our rights are put up to votes that straight citizens never have to face; each and every occasion when our legal equality, our social status, and our essential humanity is challenged or denied--is an episode of bullying.

The brain may "crystallize" during young adulthood and lose a great deal of its adaptability, but neurological plasticity is never entirely lost. Indeed, in recent years the medical community has come to recognize that the brains of adults, even older adults, retain unexpected regenerative capabilities. But that, to me, suggests that the brain’s structure can continue to be influenced by bullying and abuse.

There’s some evidence to support this theory. The risks posed to GLBT people of all ages by religious, legal, and social stigma are extreme in terms of mental health according to Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations, a report published on Jan. 5 of this year.

The report shows that GLBTs who live in states where their rights are denied or subject to popular vote suffer elevated instances of anxiety and depression, along with the kinds of substance abuse problems that are known to stem from those mental states. The watchwords here are "depression" and "anxiety"--the mental states associated with the other forms of abuse discussed here: sexual abuse, physical abuse, and bullying.

For GLBT youth, the report noted, risks are even greater: Gay teens and young adults are far more likely than their straight counterparts to engage in suicidal behavior. And it’s not because of their behavior. It’s because of stigma. Youths who have sex with others of the same gender but who do not label themselves as being gay are seemingly shielded from the emotional traumas suffered by others who engage in the same conduct and take up the name of a sexual minority--and the social and legal burden that goes with it.

While acknowledging the higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among LGBTs, "the panel found that these problems, by themselves, do not account for the higher rates of suicide attempts that have been reported by LGBT people," a press release on the report noted. "Thus, the consensus report identified stigma and discrimination as playing a key role especially acts such as rejection or abuse by family members or peers, bullying and harassment, denunciation from religious communities and individual discrimination.

"The report also highlighted evidence that discriminatory laws and public policies have a profound negative impact on the mental health of gay adults." The report called for efforts at suicide prevention to take those factors into account. The report also noted that there is a profoundly harmful effect on GLBT youth whose families reject them.

Abuse. Stigma. Rejection. Summarize these and related words and you get one term: Bullying.

There’s a popular slogan used as a kind of hopeful catchall these days: "It Gets Better." The slogan is associated with a series of videos in which adults address an intended audience of GLTB youths. The videos say things like, "High school sucks, but then you grow up and your life can be whatever you want it to be."

That’s true, sort of. But only sort of. As long as laws, faiths, families, and social codes continue to punish gays, the bullying continues--and so does the damage.

You remember that old anti-drug ad campaign? A guy holds up an egg and says, "This is your brain." Then he scrambles the egg in a skillet and says, "This is your brain on drugs." It was such an overt and hysterical exaggeration that the very phrase "This is your brain on drugs" became a catch phrase for jokes.

But now we have medical evidence of what bullying does to the brain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like laughing. I feel like confronting every single bully out there--every John Boehner, every Fred Phelps, every Maggie Gallagher--and asking them, How dare you?

At the same time, I have a sense that the bullies who work so hard to deny us equality before the law are reacting out of neurophysiological issues of their own--deep-seated, perhaps structural, brain-based issues. But here’s the thing: If homophobia really is some sort of bad habit, then those who perpetrate it have a responsibility to get over it. Why? Because homophobia is destructive to individuals, to families, and to society at large.

I recognize that this argument sounds similar to anti-gay screeds that attempt to justify anti-gay laws. But whereas anti-gay groups accuse us of belonging to some nebulous "culture of death" that will, through some unexplained voodoo, wreck the family and Western civilization along with it, what science is showing us is that gays are the ones who are being hurt, and hurt deeply. It’s the proponents of anti-gay laws and policies, and those who spout anti-gay rhetoric, who are hurting us and our families.

Really hurting us, I mean, in the sense that a measurable and definite harm is being done. It would be one thing if the anti-gay crowd were simply airing a different point of view or stating an ideology by which they themselves prefer to live, but the fact is, the ideology espoused by anti-gay groups is intrusive and injurious. Anti-gay laws and policies--promoted by anti-gay groups and homophobic leaders--take money out of our pockets, diminish our future prospects and our quality of life, and damage our health.

I mean that literally. The chemical changes associated with being bullied don’t happen only in the brain: They happen in the body, too, making victims more vulnerable to heart problems, cancer, and a host of other health issues. The New Yorker article cited above reported on research that indicates that people with a certain level of early life "Adverse Childhood Experiences" (ACEs) were "twice as likely to smoke, seven times as likely to be alcoholics, and six times as likely to have had sex before the age of fifteen."

That’s at an ACE rating of 4. People at that same rating also faced doubled rates of heart disease and cancer--and were at twelvefold higher risk of suicidal behavior. As to drug use, men with an ACE rating of 6 or above were "forty-six times as likely" to have abused intravenous drugs.

Translate those figures to the gay community, the members of which are exposed to deeply traumatizing anti-gay messages from an early age onward. Ask the question: What’s the likely outcome? Have a look at the higher rates of depression, anxiety, and the behaviors that correlate to those things that are evident in the gay community. Even factoring out extreme cases--like gay kids who are beaten or tossed out of their homes by their homophobic parents--the picture takes on a grim cast. In other words, the very people who call us "sick" are making us... well, sick. Really sick.

We should no more stand for our mental, physical, and emotional health being sacrificed at the altar of homophobia than we should stand for the sacrifice or the theft of our families, our right to privacy, or any other thing that should be ours to claim and defend. I believe that people are naturally geared to happiness, and if we’re given a chance, I rather suspect that we gay folk will trend toward joy and health. First, however, we need to get the boots of prejudice off our necks--and the bullies out of our brains.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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