Like to Bully? Your Brain Rewards You

A new study on the brain has found exactly where inside it bullying begins.

According to, individual differences in the motivation to engage in or to avoid aggressive social interaction (bullying) are mediated by the basal forebrain, the lateral habenula circuit in the brain, according to a study conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and published June 30 in the journal Nature.

Now, you don't need to know the exact scientific facts about this.  All you need to know is that maladaptive aggressive behavior is associated with a number of psychiatric disorders and is thought to partly result from inappropriate activation of brain reward systems in response to aggressive or violent social stimuli. Researchers have now learned that the basal forebrain, or its projections to other brain regions, directly controls the rewarding aspects of aggression.

Yes, that means that bullying is seen as a rewarding activity to some people.

"Our study is the first to demonstrate that bullying behavior activates a primary brain reward circuit that makes it pleasurable to a subset of individuals,” the web site quotes Scott Russo, PhD, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Furthermore, we show that manipulating activity in this circuit alters the activity of brain cells and ultimately, aggression behavior.” 

While previous research has found the lateral habenula to play a role in negative mood states and aversion across a broad range of species, including mice and humans, little was previously known about the neural mechanisms that directly regulate the motivational component of aggressive behavior. 

When researchers artificially induced certain neuron activation between the basal forebrain and lateral habenula, they watched in real time as the aggressive mice became docile and no longer showed bullying behavior. “Our study is unique in that we took information about the basal forebrain, lateral habenula projections and then actually went back and manipulated these connections within animals to conclusively show that the circuits bi-directionally control aggression behavior," says Dr. Russo.

So, what does this mean?  That bullies enjoy bullying, or feel motivated to do it for the reward?  I suppose so.   But there's hope.  The research showed that "targeting shared underlying deficits in motivational circuitry may provide useful information for the development of novel therapeutic drugs for treating aggression-related neuropsychiatric disorders."

Maybe all we have to do is reorder bullies' brains.  


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