Billy Hargrove from Stranger Things
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Credit: Netflix

Science says bullies might be so mean because they literally have less of a brain

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Feb 24, 2020, 9:44 AM EST

If you’ve ever been bullied, at some point you must have wondered what was going on in the bully’s head to make them do anything from giving atomic wedgies to spreading vicious rumors — how could you not?

Turns out there is something about bullies, like Stranger Things’ Billy Hargrove (above) that could explain their deviant and potentially traumatizing behavior. Findings from a recent study have now suggested that the brains of people who went through an antisocial phase during adolescence and kept bullying others throughout adulthood have less overall surface area and thinner gray matter in certain regions. Bullying is apparently something both physiological and psychological that not everyone grows out of.

This may be tempting to think of this as a “no wonder” finding, especially when you remember the vicious Clueless-esque popular girls who thought you were too uncool for their clique or the jock who stuffed unfortunate souls into their lockers after school. It may feel like even more of a revelation to anyone who suffered from the tyranny of a bully boss long after high school. Lack of brains explains lack of sense, right? The truth is that scientists are only just starting to understand what makes a bully a bully.

"Our findings support the idea that, for the small proportion of individuals with life-course-persistent antisocial behavior, there may be differences in their brain structure that make it difficult for them to develop social skills that prevent them from engaging in antisocial behavior. These people could benefit from more support throughout their lives," Christina Carlisi, of University College London in the UK, said in a press release. She and her colleagues recently published a study in The Lancet.  

Carlisi’s study found that there are actually major differences between the brains of people who only displayed antisocial behavior during adolescence and those who went on to be antisocial for life. To literally find out what was going on in bullies’ minds, she and her research team used MRI data from 1,037 people born between 1972 and 1973. They all belonged to a study that had observed health and behavior over those 45 years and had previously been identified as either never having been bullies, only gone through an antisocial phase in adolescence, or antisocial for life.

MRI scans measured the total surface area and thickness of the cerebral cortex, which is the same gray matter you see in zombie movies. The cerebral cortex is the epicenter of higher thought processes that include motivation and decision making — and it might be something lacking here that leads to decisions which are less than stellar.

While it might almost seem like pseudo-scientific revenge, the results showed that those in the group which had been antisocial for life had both reduced cortical surface area and thickness in comparison to those non-antisocial group and those who outgrew their antisocial phase. The adolescent-only antisocial group had slightly reduced cortical area and thickness, but in different parts of the brain, while the lifers displayed significantly less area and thickness over a much greater area of gray matter.

“These analyses provide initial evidence that differences in brain surface [dimensions] are associated with life-course-persistent, but not adolescence-limited, antisocial behavior,” Carlisi said in the study.

Does this mean that people born with less gray matter are doomed to be bullies, or does antisocial behavior cause it to shrink? Not enough studies have been done to prove either possibility. What we do know is that DNA does control surface area and thickness of the cerebral cortex. Adversity in early life can also negatively affect these areas, contributes to conduct disorder in children and adolescents, and is a known risk factor for lifetime antisocial behavior. It could be that physiological and psychological factors which influence bullying are comorbid (symptoms occurring together) — or not.

Until future studies can demystifiy why the guy who shoved terrified freshmen down the stairs grew up to be a sadistic corporate boss, gray matter is still a gray area.

(via The Lancet)

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