fMRI images of brain activity found in teenagers diagnosed with aggressive
conduct disorder when they were shown videos of people being injured.
While most of our brains are wired to feel empathy when we witness suffering, it appears as though the same might not be true for bullies. Indeed, studies show that normally we humans are hardwired in a way that prompts activity in the areas of our brains associated with pain when we see others in pain, which is indicative of empathy.
However, a recent study out of the University of Chicago that appeared in the latest issue of Biological Psychology suggests that teenagers with a history of bullying and other aggressive activities associated with a disorder called "aggressive conduct disorder" appear to actually feel pleasure when seeing others suffer and lack activity in the area of the brain which is involved in self-regulation.
The study, co-authored by University of Chicago psychologist Benjamin Lahey, hooked up teenage bullies to a brain activity imaging device called an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and showed them various videos of people being hurt by others and being hurt incidentally to see how their brains reacted to seeing other people suffer. The results were somewhat of a surprise.
The researchers had generally expected to see evidence of apathy towards the suffering of others, an emotional coldness and detachment that allow them to victimize others without remorse. But instead they discovered something much more worrisome, that the teenagers did have a connection with their victims and others who suffer in that they actually experienced pleasure when they witnessed other people suffering.
Specifically, images taken from normal control subjects showed activity in areas of the brain associated with pain when they were shown the same videos, something that would indicate an empathetic response, the bullies brains showed activity in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, called the amygdala and ventral striatum instead, which indicates that their brains are wired to get pleasure from causing others to suffer.
Another way to describe it would be that it's similar to how a junky's brain responds to drugs by sparking activity in the reward and pleasure centers of the brain, encouraging the junky to get more drugs to feed an addiction. A bully's brain, it seems, similarly rewards the bully for acts of bullying and actively encourages aggressive and violent behavior on a biological level.
The study also found a striking amount of inactivity in the portions of the brain associated with self-regulation and emotional control, which means that not only might bullies get pleasure from the suffering of others, they might also have difficulties controlling their responses to seemingly minor affronts, like having a tendancy to react violently in response to someone accidentally bumping into them.
While this study only focused on individuals in their late teenage years who had histories of bullying, theft, and frequent lying, it seems possible that the same could be true for law enforcement officers who have a known history of abuses or misconduct. This wouldn't be a difficult link to make with the anecdotal evidence available which has always hinted at a link between officers who had tendencies towards aggressive behavior as children continuing that behavior as adults, almost in a way that would indicate that childhood bullies are drawn to the profession of law enforcement as an "safe" outlet for their aggressive tendencies.
This would also explain why many victims of police violence report that officers would seem to be euphoric while participating in beating suspects or why some victims of violent assaults, like domestic abuse victims, would report that some officers would joke about or make rude comments about how they were assaulted while investigating their reports.
While this study seems to be very bad news as it shows that bullies don't just have the same prohibitions towards violence that normal people do, but they have an active propensity towards violence and harm, it isn't all bad news. A finding like this may help find new ways to diagnose and treat this overly aggressive tendency in people who are predisposed to cause harm to others out of the sheer pleasure of causing harm.
While this might be good news down the road for childhood victims of bullying, there is no indication that any such study is being planned for adults, let alone a study of police officers who have a known history of aggressive behavior and abuse. So far to date, very few studies have been done to determine what causes some officers to be abusive while others are not, perhaps because of social stigmas that are supportive of such abusive behavior by law enforcement officers.
Hopefully, someday, researchers will investigate what causes some police officers to have a predisposition to react violently to seemingly minor affronts and why some officers appear to get pleasure from the suffering they witness or sometimes contribute to. Until then, there is little hope that people with such predispositions will be screened before they are allowed to work in jobs with such an opportunity to use one's authority over others in ways that only gratify the abnormal brain wiring that gives some pleasure at the suffering of others instead of empathy for those who suffer.