- Published: June 8, 2015
Is there science behind the observation that bullies take pleasure in other people’s pain? An fMRI study published in 2008 by scientists at the University of Chicago found abnormal empathetic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder (CD). In the study, adolescent boys with aggressive CD and eight normal peers watched video clips of individuals in pain and not in pain. While both groups exhibited strong neural responses in the "pain network" to the latter group of video clips, whereas the control group exhibited strong co-activation of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (consistent with self-regulation and holding emotions at check), the boys with CD instead showed increased activity in the amygdala and ventral striatum, an area of the brain associated with pleasure and rewards.
The authors suggested that aggressive CD adolescents have a normal neural response to pain, but because of decreased prefrontal cortex (PFC) and amygdala connectivity, they may not be effectively regulate their aggressive behavior. The increased amygdala/ventral striatum activity could also explain why some bullies may seem to take pleasure out of seeing others in pain.
It would be interesting to see if these youth could somehow be trained to strengthen their amygdala and prefrontal cortex connections, and thus more effectively moderate their aggressive behavior. Either way, these findings are a great start for determining the neural underpinning of aggressive behavior and conduct disorder.