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A Bully's Brain Perceives Subordinating Others as a "Reward"

Researchers have pinpointed the brain circuitry that drives aggressive behavior.

Source: CataVic/Shutterstock

We all know someone who seems to take pleasure in being a bully. I've never understood what drives certain individuals to use aggressive behavior to subordinate others. That said, in the past 24 hours, I've gained some insights on what motivates bullies. I have some fresh ideas on how to break the cycle of bullying based on the research of experts in neuroscience at Mount Sinai in New York and a philosopher from the University of Chicago.

Yesterday, I listened to an eye-opening interview, "Striking a Balance Between Anger and Forgiveness" on NPR with Martha Nussbaum and Tom Ashbrook about her new book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. Nussbaum’s conclusion is that instead of revenge, retribution, or simple forgiveness that with a 'spirit of generosity' someone who feels victimized by a bully can channel his or her 'transformative anger' into non-violent activism that somehow makes the world a better place.

Hearing this interview yesterday helped me identify pro-social ways (such as writing this blog post) to redirect my urge to seek revenge and ‘payback’ on a former friend who is a notorious bully. An important part of forgiving this person was realizing that more than anything, I'm angry at myself for being duped by his phoniness and superficial charm. Especially because the deep-seeded roots of his narcissism and sociopathic character traits were plainly visible from the first day we met.

For months, I’ve been perplexed by observing the Machiavellian behavior of this individual, who clearly finds it pleasurable to use his money and power to make others feel intimidated or ‘less than.’ He is the quintessential bully. Today, a new study on the neuroscience of aggressive behavior was published which helps to deconstruct what drives bullies to take sadistic pleasure in causing others pain and suffering.

I believe these neuroscientific findings and philosophical insights can help to reduce the epidemic of aggression and anger we are seeing across our nation and worldwide.

Reward Circuitry Makes Bullies Feel Good When They Subordinate Others

Previous research has implicated the basal forebrain as an important brain reward region linked to aggression-related behaviors—as well as the aversion to aggression—across a broad range of species, including mice and humans. A new study from Mount Sinai is the first to pinpoint the exact circuitry that makes bullying behavior pleasurable and rewarding on a neurobiological level.

The June 2016 study, “Basal Forebrain Projections to the Lateral Habenula Modulate Aggression Reward,” was published today in the journal Nature. This study focuses on identifying the neuronal mechanisms through which specific brain reward regions interact to modulate the motivational or rewarding components of aggressive (bullying) behavior using a mouse model.

These groundbreaking findings have identified a connection between the basal forebrain and lateral habenula circuit in the brain that mediates an individual’s motivation to engage in bullying. Or, on the flip side, to avoid aggressive behavior in social interactions.

Neurons in the lateral habenula are ‘reward-negative’ meaning that they are activated by stimuli associated with unpleasant events. This can create a conditioned response of aversion to social aggression and hostility.

To study individual differences in aggressive behavior, the Mount Sinai researchers created a behavioral model using mice that exposed adult males to a younger subordinate mouse for three minutes every day for three consecutive days. They found that 70 percent of mice exhibited aggressive behavior (AGGs) to a subordinate mouse. 30 percent of mice displayed no aggression at all (NONs).

Then, the researchers were able to identify that when AGG mice were given the opportunity to bully another mouse that they exhibit increased activity of the basal forebrain GABA projection neurons. This reduced activity in the lateral habenula. Conversely, the researchers discovered that NON mice exhibited reduced basal forebrain activity and a subsequent increase in lateral habenula neuronal firing, which made them aversive to aggressive behaviors.

The findings suggest that aggressive mice found the ability to subordinate another mouse rewarding, which fueled a "bring it on" motivation to act like a bully. Although this is an animal study, we all know from personal experience that there are certain individuals who find it rewarding to subordinate other people. Also, anecdotally we know that there are ‘NON’ type humans, who seem to have zero interest in displaying social aggression or bullying others.

The researchers point out that maladaptive aggressive behavior is associated with a variety of psychiatric disorders. In a statement, Scott Russo, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said,

"Our study is the first to demonstrate that bullying behavior activates a primary brain reward circuit that makes it pleasurable to a subset of individuals. Furthermore, we show that manipulating activity in this circuit alters the activity of brain cells and ultimately, aggression behavior. When we artificially induced the rapid GABA neuron activation between the basal forebrain and lateral habenula, we watched in real time as the aggressive mice became docile and no longer showed bullying behavior.

Our study is unique in that we took information about the basal forebrain, lateral habenula projections and then actually went back and manipulated these connections within animals to conclusively show that the circuits bi-directionally control aggression behavior."

Conclusions: "How Shall I Produce Cooperation and Friendship?"

The latest findings from Mount Sinai identify a previously unidentified functional role for the lateral habenula and its inputs from the basal forebrain that mediate the rewarding component of aggression and bullying. Pinpointing the motivational circuitry that drives aggressive social behaviors could lead to the development of novel therapeutic drugs for treating aggression-related neuropsychiatric disorders.

Additionally, as someone who believes strongly in the power of visualizing brain circuitry—and then consciously taking steps to rearrange the circuits in my brain—it's helpful to have a clear image of keeping my basal forebrain-lateral habenula gateway open and the GABA flowing. This can help to maintain a healthy aversion to anger-fueled social aggression.

In a 21st-century culture that seems to reward aggressive and angry behavior, I have a gut feeling that we are collectively hard-wiring our brains not to allow our lateral habenula to interpret social aggression as a negative or detrimental experience. Although it's pure conjecture on my part, as an educated guess, it seems that part of the short-circuitry that occurs between the forebrain and habenula in those who are prone to bullying could be rewired through cognitive therapies and changes in mindset.

Martha Nussbaum makes the point that we can all learn from the legacies of three non-violent and very successful freedom movements that were conducted in the spirit of non-anger—those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela.

Based on the tone of some of the Presidential candidacies of 2016, I believe that Nussbaum’s insights on how to break the cycle of anger and aggression dovetail perfectly with the latest empirical findings on the neuroscience of bullying from Scott Russo and colleagues at Mount Sinai. In an interview with The Observer on the politics of peace, Nussbaum said.

“Now there is indeed anger in King’s [I Have a Dream] speech, at least at first. . . . but King gets busy reshaping it to work and thought for how it [anger] could be made good. Anger towards opponents is transformed into a mental attitude that carefully separates the deed from the doer. . . . After all, the ultimate goal, as King says, is 'to create the world where all can live together.' . . . Mandela asked, ‘How shall I produce cooperation and friendship?' It’s a difficult goal, but it’s that goal that I’m recommending for both individuals and institutions."

In closing, below is a video of, "Love Is the Message" by Arthur Baker and Al Green. Baker is an alumni of my Alma mater, Hampshire College. Although he's best known for his disco anthems of the late '70s and early '80s, this song (from 1989) uses powerful imagery and music to deliver a timeless message of how we can overcome anger, bullying while nurturing cooperation and friendship one-on-one and at a global level.

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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