Research Suggests Verbal Abuse Hinders Brain Development

Psychology Today reports on a forthcoming study in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

Young adults, ages 18-25, with no history of exposure to domestic violence, sexual abuse, or parental physical abuse, were asked to rate their childhood exposure to parental and peer verbal abuse when they were children, and then they were given a brain scan.

The results revealed that those individuals who reported experiencing verbal abuse from their peers during middle school years had underdeveloped connections between the left and right sides of their brain through the massive bundle of connecting fibers called the corpus callosum. Psychological tests given to all subjects in the study showed that this same group of individuals had higher levels of anxiety, depressionanger, hostility, dissociation, and drug abuse than others in the study.

Verbal abuse from peers during the middle school years had the greatest impact, presumably because this is a sensitive period when these brain connections are developing and becoming insulated with myelin. (Myelin is formed by non-neuronal cells, brain cells that are also known as “the other brain”, or glia.)

The environment that children are raised in molds not only their mind, but also their brain. This is something many long suspected, but now we have scientific instruments that show us how dramatically childhood experience alters the physical structure of the brain, and how sensitive we are as children to these environmental effects. Words–verbal harassment–from peers (and, as a previous study from these researchers showed, verbal abuse from a child’s parents) can cause far more than emotional harm.

As I have argued several times before, ethically conscientious adults are not (or should not) be nearly as blithe about verbally abusing each other as many of the people one encounters online are. We should not be repeating the cycles of abuse that have already done legitimate damage to people growing up and have all sorts of potential to continue to harm them. And if we were verbally abused as children we should be scrupulously introspective about whether we have not been conditioned by bullies to replicate in ourselves the same abusive, hatefulness that victimized us, possibly to the point of hurting our brain development and causing many of our emotional anxieties. We might be especially blind to this if we solidified self-righteous narratives about ourselves wherein we are inherently only victims and all our own hostility, no matter how reckless, is always justified retaliation against our numerous oppressors. As Nietzsche warned (and I discussed at length in my post against hatred in the atheist community), when one fights monsters, one runs the risk of becoming a monster. Recently I dubbed this corrupting dynamic “The Abuser’s Dialectic” and analyzed it thusly:

When you are subject to some form of abuse and are disempowered by that abuse, you risk coming psychologically to understand power as being that form of abuse. Think of the kid who is beaten by his parents who then takes to beating up other kids. It seems reasonable to assume that he is feeling like the way to attain the power that the beatings take from him is to become a bully himself.

Rather than learning to assert himself in ways that respect others and cultivate healthy mutual admiration and collaboration, he takes self-assertion to simply be brutally dominating and demoralizing others, physically and emotionally. Rather than coming to affirm himself positively and become independent of his abuser’s opinions and maltreatment, he displaces his rage at feeling powerless onto others, he spoils for fights in which he can vent the rage meant for his abuser, and he repeats his abusers’ ugly pattern of behavior in his own life, thereby letting his abuser live on through him, consume him, and determine his own character.

None of that is healthy. And it’s not healthy either if the sexually abused become sexual abusers, the emotionally abused become emotionally abusive, the socially abused become socially abusive, etc.

I think a healthy and flourishing sense of power and pleasure comes from creativity, autonomy, personal independence, love, and the ability to empower others through what one does. This is because we are most powerful when we make others powerful. In these cases, their power is to that extent owed to our influence and is therefore a multiplication of our own power and an extension of it–in all of which we can justifiably take pride. By contrast, when we damage, distort, or outright destroy others’ abilities to function powerfully, this is, in most cases, only our ability to decrease the powerful, constructive, healthy functioning in the world, and that is to our ultimate discredit, on the ledger of power itself, and so it is our own ultimate loss.

Healthy power is creative, not reactive. True social and emotional power is in the ability to redeem the potential for growth within as many others as possible, including even your erring enemies so much as that is possible. It is not solely to mitigate the damage they do by whatever means necessary. Damage to others’ powerful functioning has to be prevented wherever possible. To the extent that doing this means embracing a degree of conflict in struggles for control against those who use their control to harm others, then powerfully empowering people need to be willing to get involved in such fights.  But even as we fight hard for vital principles and ideals and for the empowerment of all, and in particular for the especially disempowered, we must be careful that we avoid as much as possible the urge to destroy our enemies rather than redeem them, insofar as this is ever our choice.

In all things we should have our enemies’ good in mind as much as possible, lest we become them, and thereby fall into the dialectic of abuse, according to which we confuse power itself to be the ability to hurt others in perversely satisfying ways that express displaced, sublimated, uncontrolled rages given to us by our abusers.

We are of course right to feel satisfaction and self-assurance in our willingness to uncompromisingly affirm our personal dignity and our personal pride against the most fundamentally unfair assaults on them. In more vulnerable and more emotionally immature days, if my only psychologically realistic choice was between lashing out to defend myself or feeling disempowered, then it is for the better that I went through this “lion” stage, this liberatingly defiant “no-saying” stage of personal development. If I really needed this to be the rebellious, self-discovery stage that I missed as an overly obedient adolescent and to extricate myself from a deceitful and manipulative religious institution, then sobeit. And, I get it when others, in the process of liberating themselves from their own demons, go through this dark stage of lashing out. I don’t begrudge them this, even as I encourage them, like I encourage myself, to extricate themselves as much as possible from the abusers’ dialectic as they can and never turn their abusiveness itself into a point of pride or principle or identity or indifference. It’s for many an unfortunately unavoidable dialectical stage of growth, but one to overcome and outgrow.

Ultimately, healthy growth requires getting beyond the emotional influence of abusers and not living in perpetual reactivity, in thrall to them, determined by them to pass on their emotional, physical, or social violence to others. It means thinking creatively and constructively. When one is in the “No-saying” stage, one winds up often unable to affirm numerous things except as also simultaneously gestures of denials of one’s abusers. And out of a counter-corrective response, one gets tempted to jettison as irredeemable every good thing that the abuser contorted. When the internalized abuser in one’s own mind, the side of oneself that torments you and others on the abuser’s behalf, can finally be exorcised, you can affirm again freely, without associating everything with the connotations the abuser gave to it.

In the rest of that post, I describe some of my own personal struggles to overcome the abuser’s dialectic.

Part of rejecting the abuser’s dialectic means not leveling charges of “stupidity”, which are a staple of childhood bullying. I argue elsewhere that

“stupid” is an ableist word that harms more than just its immediate target as it degrades people with less natural or developed intellectual skill. It reinforces their insecurities and their marginalization. In many cases this word blames people for what they cannot control, discourages their participation in intellectual activities, and demeans them by turning them into a standard for badness.

People have dropped out of school over being called “stupid”. They have lost their love of learning over the word “stupid”. They have been emotionally abused by their parents, their lovers, their friends, their schoolyard’s bullies, and their colleagues, by this word. While slurs affect fewer people but in a potentially more dramatically damaging ways, abusive attacks on people’s intelligence is a routine form of harm that affects a greater number of people, in a range of ways with a range of varying degrees of harm. Quite possibly more bullies have verbally assaulted others with the word “stupid” than any other word.

As our consciousness continually increases about the pervasive bullying that makes so many children’s social lives sheer misery, we need to recognize how much this word is a part of the problem and how much it continues to affect those children into adulthood. And who knows, possibly more bullies have been created by the word “stupid” being hurled at them than by any other single word. When we adults use this word, we are just continuing bullying patterns we did not unlearn from childhood. I am not exempt from this. I used to casually refer to people as idiots all the time. I’m conscientiously learning to undue this routine socialization into casual cruelty, just as much as I am trying to undue my routine socialization into sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, etc.

When the less educated who are religious hear highly educated and otherwise privileged atheists call religious people “stupid” they hear a huge dose of elitism and condescension that they resent and which causes them in many cases to close their minds to us.

It is a disastrously insensitive choice of words.

And later on, I talk about how the word affects at least some adults:

I have always been reasonably good at picking up on other people’s social anxieties. I have been embarrassed and frustrated by the ways that people who are intellectually insecure respond to me when I do nothing more malicious than make sophisticated arguments that are beyond their own capabilities, or even if I merely mention that I am a professor or that I study philosophy.

People have a lot of intellectual insecurity. Sometimes they project it onto me and accuse me of arrogance or belittlement that is simply not there. I passionately say something out of my concern for the truth or to correct their errors and in their sensitivity they are only intimidated by how smart it sounds and so they hear only “you’re stupid”. I try to mitigate against this as sensitively as possible. The whole atheist community should be conscientiously doing likewise if we are to be more rational, more inclusive, and more humane.

Read my whole case against the word “stupid” (and its synonyms) in that post and in the related posts “But Aren’t Some People Actually Stupid?”I am not against “dirty words”. I am against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them, and Who Are You Calling Stupid? Also see my case against using words like “asshole” and “douchebag” as words for moral condemnation in the post on whether marginalized people need to be insulting in order to be empowered.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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