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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

BBC: Bullies have Bad Brains

It was only last week that fMRI explained human hatred. Now it's revealed why some kids are horrible to others. Behold -

  • "Bullying tendency wired in brain"
  • "Bullies' brains may be hardwired to have sadistic tendencies"
  • "Bullies' brains may be wired differently"

At least according to the BBC. You may not be surprised to learn that I'm skeptical. The Neurocritic is too, and indeed he beat me to it on this one, having critiqued the paper in question, "Atypical Empathetic Responses in Adolescents with Aggressive Conduct Disorder: A functional MRI Investigation" (here), remarkably quickly.

So I wasn't going to post about this study, but then The Onion covered it and inspired me to write something. Or rather, I'm going to write about the BBC's story, which was impressively rubbish even by the standards of neuro-journalism.

Basically, all of the statements I quoted at the top of this post are nonsense. They're science fiction. For one thing, this study wasn't about "bullies", but teenage boys diagnosed with severe "Conduct Disorder" (CD) who had committed multiple serious crimes. That's just nitpicking though. The study found, using fMRI, that when you show these CD-diagnosed boys videos of people suffering pain, different parts of their brain activate, compared to a control group of nice, non-violent boys. On some interpretations these areas included the brain's "pleasure centers" although this is controversial (and according to one commentator, it may be all based on someone flunking Anatomy 101).

I've previously berated laymen and journalists (and all-too-many neuroscientists) for being mystified by coloured blobs on the brain. They see them as revealing profound truths about humanity, and in particular, they see them as pointing to "nature" over "nurture" explanations for behaviour. This is rarely explicitly stated, but the BBC did so with the line "Bullies' brains may be hardwired to have sadistic tendencies". Essentially, they are implying that there is something biologically wrong with the brains of bullies which leads to them taking pleasure in the pain of others.

Is this completely unfounded? After all, the study did find differences in the brains of the bullies vs. the normal kids. Surely that means they were "wired differently", maybe even "hardwired" differently? Well, yes, but only in an utterly trivial sense. Everything we do is the result of our brain activity - and every difference between two people is a result of differences in the "wiring" of their brains. The only reason that you're not sitting here like me, writing a cynical blog post about neuroscience, is that you have the good fortune to have a brain wired differently from mine. The only reason I wrote the word "cynical" in that last sentence rather than, er, "snarky", is that my brain was wired that way. And so on.

Brains get wired the way they do through the interacting influence of genes (which tell your neurons how to grow and how to connect up during brain development) and the environment (e.g. as you learn to do something, new connections between your neurons are formed, sometimes leading to massive reorganization of the brain - a fascinating topic in itself).

So, that one person's brain is "wired differently" to another person's is a completely mundane fact. In fact it's as dull as saying that no two people have the same fingerprints. It tells you nothing about how it got to be wired the way it did, and in particular it tells you nothing about whether it was "hardwired" to be that way, i.e. genetically determined. Just by reading this post, your brain has got rewired! So even if you accept that this fMRI study found that bullies take pleasure in watching people suffer (dubious as I mentioned above), this tells you nothing about why. Maybe they were brought up to be sadistic. Maybe they see other people suffering a lot, and have got used to it.

So when the BBC quote Dr Mike Eslea as saying
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 behavioural solutions
They should perhaps heed his warning rather than "biologizing" bullying so keenly.

The interesting thing about this is that the BBC journalist was probably not stupid. He or she is just human. I think we feel intuitively that any biological difference between two groups of people implies a biological cause for that difference, because we intuitively have a dualistic concept of the relationship between the mind and the brain. Mind and brain are separate entities. We can just about accept that the brain (biological) can influence behaviour (psychological), although we find this idea outlandish and vaguely disturbing, because we think it undermines the idea of "free will". But we can't see how behaviour could influence the brain. Hence the headline "Bullying tendency wired in brain". It's common sense, but it's also nonsense.

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