The brain never forgets

Sticks and stones may break bones, as the saying goes, but names will never hurt. Not so, says researcher Tracy Vaillancourt. She argues all bullying leaves a lasting mark on victims, including a neurological one.

A professor in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education and School of Psychology, Vaillancourt holds the Canada Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention. Among her many research interests are the biological effects of bullying and victimization.

While some people see bullying as a part of growing up and a way for children to learn how to defend themselves, Vaillancourt has found that it has long-term physical and psychological consequences. In fact, bullying is a traumatic experience that the brain seems to never forget, which is why the professor is collecting evidence to con­vince government and education officials to develop more stringent anti-bullying policies.

“The physical effects of bullying are hard to ignore, but there are no telltale signs of emotional bullying and social aggression,” she says. “The reality is that policy-makers are more likely to make changes if they see visible proof of the brain damage caused by bullying.”

According to the 2011 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, nearly a third of Ontario students in grades 7 to 12 reported being the victim of bullying while at school. The study, which is conducted on a biennial basis for Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, also looked at cyberbullying for the first time last year. It found that one in five students had reportedly experienced online harassment.

Regardless of the type of mistreatment—verbal abuse, threatening text messages, physical punches or public humiliation—Vaillancourt says all bullying leads to social pain. “It’s probably the worst stress that you can endure,” she explains. “People have a fundamental need to belong and bullying thwarts that need.”

But social exclusion doesn’t just lead to depression and anxiety. It also increases the amount of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in the body. And, as Vaillancourt has found, when a child’s brain is bathed in cortisol, it can lead to memory problems.

What’s more, the anguish caused by bullying appears to be built to last. Previous research by other scientists has shown that physical and social pain activates the same region of the brain. This overlap, says Vaillancourt, may explain why children who have been bullied often use physical metaphors to describe their feelings, such as, “it broke my heart” and “I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.” The key difference between physical and social pain, however, is that memories of the former are usually forgotten while recollections of the latter endure over time.

Researchers have shown that people have strong, visceral responses when discussing past experiences of rejection and humiliation. “Even when a story is just being recounted, the brain reacts as if the event is really happening,” explains Vaillancourt. “It’s a memory imprint of rejection.”

So how do victims interpret the experience of being ostracized? To find out, Vaillancourt is conducting an electroencephalography (EEG) study on 12- to 16-year-old victims of bullying. Her hypothesis: kids become “threat sensitized.” They come to believe that people cannot be trusted and look for evidence to confirm this belief. In the end, this negative bias can lead to anxiety and depression and cause victims to expect that everyone, at some point, will hurt and reject them, a perception that can adversely affect future relationships.

But Vaillancourt is convinced it doesn’t have to be this way. She wants every Canadian province and territory to adopt a “safe schools” policy. The strategy would include a universal definition of bullying, as well as clear and consistent consequences for bullies. It would also educate teachers on how to handle physical and emotional bullying, and offer children better protection.

“We expect kids to thrive and do well in school, but we put them in environments where they experience mistreatment and can’t reach their potential,” says Vaillancourt. “Often, they suffer in silence and feel that they have nowhere to go.”

She believes, however, that there is hope. If citizens pressure policy-makers to pass laws against bullying, Vaillancourt says the results will be positive: future generations might avoid the devastating effects of peer victimization.


by Dana Yates

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