When I enter “bitterness” into Google or PubMed, I receive a long list of articles and research into the taste sensation not the emotional or psychological state. I have to specifically enter the not command for sweet and taste to find a few articles on the destructive state of bitterness. On PubMed, articles refer more to the basic science of aversive states on emotional memory than specifically on bitterness; for example, Likhtik and Johansen’s abstract in Nature Neuroscience:
“While the role of excitatory and inhibitory neural circuits mediating emotional learning and its control have been the focus of much research, we are only now beginning to understand the more diffuse role of neuromodulation in these processes. Recent experimental studies of the acetylcholine, noradrenaline and dopamine systems in fear learning and extinction of fear responding provide surprising answers to key questions in neuromodulation.”
Although researchers have not focused on brain injury anger — that specific type of anger that arises out of neurophysiological injury — they have studied the brain areas involved in anger, yet without differentiating between its many forms. I suspect that each anger type would light up different pathways, one for the sense of outrage at injustice, another from one’s life being threatened, another at seeing a person being assaulted. Clinicians who work with people who’ve suffered brain injury know that neurostimulation and/or neuromodulation release the person from brain injury anger and eradicate the constant irritation that’s like nails on chalkboard from any kind of sensory stimuli from a passing car to a person’s voice. When rebooting, repairing, and rewiring the brain through neurostimulation eliminates the type of anger that flashes on and flashes off and exists without any ability to control it, then you know it’s neurophysiologically based.
In The Brain's Way of Healing, Norman Doidge defined neuromodulation as an “internal method by which the brain contributes to its own healing. It quickly restores the balance between excitation and inhibition in the neural networks and quiets the noisy brain.”
Neurostimulation can trigger neuromodulation. Since neurostimulation includes using our sensory inputs, our environment and relationships are also a form of neurostimulation. And while Doidge talks about the healing effects, the brain’s same internal neuromodulating mechanism can also harm. Bruce Perry wrote in What Happened to You that, among “those three ‘components’ of trauma, the three E’s — the event, the experience, and the effects — PTSD is about the effects.”
We see trauma effects, including bitterness, even when we’ve missed seeing the precipitating event or the changes in the brain’s wiring. We see bitterness as an emotional state and attribute it to attitude or mental illness. UK-based Harley Therapy echoes other therapists on their blog: “the emotional reaction and mood of bitterness is referred to as ’embitterment’. It is an emotional state of feeling let down and unable to do anything about it.” They cite Michael Linden’s theory of it being a mental disorder, calling it "post-traumatic embitterment disorder," and stating “bitterness can lead to long term psychological distress.”
But isn’t bitterness inherently distressing? As Christopher Lane wrote, “bitterness strikes the person feeling it as a justified response to a social ill or personal wrong.”
Does bitterness emerge after damage to particular neurons or neural networks? Does the damaging event need to be physical, or is emotional or psychological trauma the kind of event that precipitates bitterness? Does it arise more easily in those with learned helplessness than in those whose brains have rewired to act in the face of seeming lack of control? Are there different forms of bitterness like there are of anger?
Most importantly, what is bitterness’s function?
Anger allows us to express ourself when facing injustice or oppression; it initiates action to protect another; it’s a safer way to express our distress than deep sadness or grief as the latter makes us feel vulnerable whereas anger feels protective.
Thinking about the latter, what does bitterness do for us? Perhaps it protects us from feeling the deep psychic pain from betrayal, abandonment, or intentional harm because to feel that pain would render us immobile and unable to eat, sleep, look after ourselves, engage with others.
I've written that “I became bitter when it finally penetrated my brain that doctors…who treat brain injury are simply not interested in thinking outside the box, in learning from non-MDs, in working alongside their patients.” In other words, the medical profession abandoned me to a catastrophic injury and I stopped believing I could escape that shock.
Maier and Seligman have updated their understanding of learned helplessness, as I wrote: “Prolonged exposure to trauma keeps [default neural] pathways, and thus passivity and fear or anxiety, active. For a person with brain injury, already overwhelmed by the injury and fatigue, this could add to or look like no motivation and continual anxiety…discovering one can escape shock creates the learned state.”
What happens, though, if a person has not learned, or has unlearned, that one can escape shock and experiences abandonment, betrayal, or trauma so profound that the psychic pain is unendurable? What if that person’s brain remains in the default passive state, which manifests as not believing one has any control while believing that another has full control over them and has abandoned them? Bitterness may function then as a protective mechanism against the resulting intense lacerating psychic pain.
These are the questions researchers have yet to delve into. While psychologist, pastors, and self-help experts impose guilt or labels for feeling bitter, researchers are barely studying the neural correlates of bitterness or its function. When we understand these, clinical researchers could develop effective therapies that combine neuromodulation with training the brain to learn it can escape shock and with talk therapy based on the principle of establishing a stable relationship between professional and client that counters abandonment. For ultimately, bitterness arises out of damage to one or many relationships.
Copyright ©2023 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy
Likhtik, E., Johansen, J.P. Neuromodulation in circuits of aversive emotional learning. Nat Neurosci 22, 1586–1597 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-019-0503-3
Doidge, N. (2015.) The Brain's Way of Healing. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
Perry, B.D., & Winfrey, O. (2021.) What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. New York, NY: Flatiron Books.