The biochemistry of fear and aggression.

Published: 12th April 2006
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The Brain Chemistry of Bullying and it's Effects of Behavior

By Peyton Quinn

I have talked about "bullying" in schools and elsewhere in this column several times. The victims of bullies sometimes know that being bullied as a young person has had effects on their thinking and their self-image far into their adult life.

Now, new research, which I feel is quite significant, partially explains the biological mechanisms at work here. In these experiments researchers observed large mice intimidate smaller ones. The Texas researchers placed small mice into cage with a large and aggressive mouse for five minutes. The larger mouse backed the smaller mouse into a corner.

Next, the small mice were placed into a cage with the aggressive, larger mouse but with a perforated clear plastic partition between them. The smaller mouse was now in no actual physical danger from the larger and more aggressive mouse. The small mouse could however both still see and smell the aggressive mouse that he had previously been cornered by.

These bullied mice emerged extremely fearful. The bullied mice even retreated from non- aggressive mice four weeks later (a long time in mice years).

In their natural environment mice are normally sociable creatures. These rodents quickly determine who is the "Alpha Mouse" and then establish a general pecking order. There is thus seldom dangerous hostility with mice in the wild as they steer away from aggressive mice for friendlier companions.

The real significance of these experiments revolves around the role of a drug the brain produces called BDNF. In these experiments the level of BDNF in the mice determined if the mice would become extraordinarily "timid" and fearful or not if bullied. The experiment suggests that a part of the brain linked previously to addictive behaviors also plays a role in human social phobias and social withdrawal.

BDNF is drug critical to the development of nerve cells. The mesolimbic dopamine pathway is the neural pathway that controls the experience of pleasure and perhaps the tolerance to pain.

But, Dr. Eric Nestler, the University of Texas Southwestern Psychiatry chairman, determined that too much BDNF had an unexpected effect on learning and behavior.

The mice that were bullied showed far higher levels of BDNF than the non-bullied control group. The BDNF somehow was switching on hundreds of genes in the frontal portion of the brain. This unusual gene triggering also coincided coherently with the animal's social withdrawal and timidity.

In fact, when a virus was injected into the mice that prevented BDNF production, the bullied mice showed none of the timidity or social withdrawal behaviors. These mice had, in effect, lost their ability to learn to be afraid !

These experiments show that stress can thus activate genetic mechanisms in the brain that otherwise might have laid dormant and inactive. The drug BDNF is one of the agents that does this. And, it seems to work differently both at different levels and in different parts of the brain.

This is a remarkable discovery with significant implications on how people learn. And aren't we all in the business of teaching people to learn?

We can make use a "tool" even if we do not fully understand how that tool works. How many of us can rebuild our automobile engines? Not too many of us at all, yet we all use our car almost daily don't we?

My point is that training that involves some real mental stress is retained both in the body and mind much better than training that occurs in a non-stressful environment. The trick of course is to not make that stress more than the individual student can tolerate.

Of course, training under high levels of adrenal stress has been the very heat of my RMCAT, reality based self-defense program for these last 20 years. Not every martial arts school has an interest in teaching self-defense of course. And, as I have said before the study of these arts, as art, has intrinsic value in itself.

But, so many martial arts schools rely on children for their 'bread and butter' survival. I feel that if you are teaching children then you have an obligation to find out if they are being victimized by bullies at school or elsewhere, or worse, if they are bullies themselves. The damage that bullying can do these kids can be significant and long lasting.

Next month I will give a practical drill that you can use to induce stress into your students training and thus help them learn faster and better and understand the real problem in actual self-defense is hardly limited to technique skills. Quinnp1@aol.COM

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