Friday, November 14, 2008

Bullies' Brains Light Up With Pleasure as People Squirm

When shown videos of someone inflicting pain (such as closing a piano lid on a player's fingers, above), bullies experience activity in their brains' pleasure centers, a November 2008 study showed. The subjects tested seemed to enjoy seeing people hurt.

Image courtesy Jean Decety, University of Chicago

The brains of bullies—kids who start fights, tell lies, and break stuff with glee—may be wired to feel pleasure when watching others suffer pain, according to a new brain scanning study.

The finding was unexpected, noted Benjamin Lahey, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study, which appears in the new issue of the journal Biological Psychology.

The researchers had expected that the bullies would show no response when they witnessed pain in somebody else—that they experience a sort of emotional coldness that allows them to steal milk money with no remorse, for example.

Previous research had shown that when nonbullies see other people in pain, the same areas of the brain light up that do when the nonbullies themselves experience pain—a sign of empathy, Lahey said.

The new research showed these areas in the bullies' brains were even more active than in the nonbullies.

But the bullies' empathetic response seemed to be warped by activity in the amygdala and ventral striatum, regions of the brain sometimes associated with reward and pleasure.

"We think it means that they like seeing people in pain," Lahey said.

"If that is true," he added, "they are getting positively reinforced every time they bully and are aggressive to other people."

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