Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to Handle Bullying: An Evolutionary Perspective

Today is my 33rd birthday! I'm on Amtrak, on my way back from visiting my cousin in Providence, RI. It was a great weekend, full of Monster Mini-Golf; visiting the Armenian Museum in Watertown, MA; helping in the vegetable garden (she's a vegan); making vegan pie and cookies; searching for edible mushrooms in the woods; finding out that her first cousin twice removed's first cousin once removed is a famous TV producer (don't ask)...

Inspired by reading Richard Dawkins's new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder in which Dawkins briefly discussed his memories of witnessing school bullying, I presented my views on childhood bullying from an evolutionary perspective. I ended the post by stating that I was glad that science could shed some light on bullying and hoped that it could likewise provide insight as to what can be done about it. I think in some ways it can, although not in the way that one might think. I mentioned in the post that the bullying I experienced ended in 9th grade (age 15). What happened? It didn't just disappear. I did something about it, and I think my solution-- which is rooted in a basic understanding of evolution-- could be promising for many victims.

Let's backtrack a bit to the beginning of this story: at the end of the summer of '95, at age 14, I broke my left ankle during a game at overnight camp (my first summer, no less) and had to go home five days early. My ankle was confined to a splint for a week and to a cast for an additional six weeks. I knew that the ankle muscle would be atrophied due to lack of use for seven weeks, so I vowed to build it back up as quickly as possible by walking every day. That is exactly what I did. While the tendons were still stiff from immobilization, I simply walked about 1/4 mile (400 meters) down the street and back again each day. After the stiffness subsided, I gradually increased my distance to about 2 miles (3200 meters). Sure enough, the muscle was restored in about two months. I continued my daily after-school walks because I enjoyed them, and even incorporated a little jogging. It was odd for me to do this as I was always terrible at anything remotely athletic, including jogging. However, I continued these daily walk/jogs throughout the following months.

As discussed in my previous post about bullying, 9th grade was among the worst school years of my life because the bullying was worse than ever. Just like many adults in my life, I blamed myself for the bullying and continually lamented that there was something "defective" about me. I even sometimes said that I wished I were dead (which I didn't mean; I was never suicidal, not even in my darkest moments) and that I wished I hadn't been born (which I did mean). When the spring arrived, my mother suggested I joined the track team. I thought she was out of her mind. I knew she was just trying to make me get some "real" exercise, but I had always been terrible at sports, with teammates always taunting me. The last thing I needed, I felt, was to do something that I was not only bad at and disliked but also something that would put yet another bull's eye on my back. For whatever reason, I acquiesced to my mother's wish and joined the track team; my life would never be the same again.

I was right about one thing: I was terrible at it. In perhaps an apt metaphor for my social life, I could not keep up with my teammates and found myself frustrated, wondering why it was so easy for them (years later I found out that I have exceptionally low lung capacity, even when conditioned). My track coach saw that I was struggling, and instead of chastising me for what I could not do (as did many adults when I ran into social trouble), he helped me to train. Whenever I was tempted to stop and rest, he ran beside me and kept urging me on. Although I never quite kept up with my teammates, I eventually reached a point where I was not too far behind them either. At track meets, my coach initially put me in the 100 and 200 meter dashes. Although I was not built for sprinting, at least it was a short enough distance that he knew I could finish. One day, however, he nonchalantly announced that I was going to do the 800-meter (half mile) run. I was petrified.

At the dreaded track meet, I struggled through the first lap (400 meters). Ready to collapse, I desperately cried, "What do I do?" "Do it again," he said, because, well, the 800-meter-run is the 800-meter-run! I pulled myself through the second lap, timed at a terrible near-five minutes. Nevertheless, my coach congratulated me for completing it. After that first time, running the 800 became gradually easier. My body was adapting to the daily demands of the intense workout that is running. What happens, exactly? Because of the increased demand for oxygen in the muscles, the heart actually grows larger (it's colloquially known as "athlete's heart") so that it can hold more blood and deliver oxygen more efficiently (this is why marathon runners have very low resting heart rates). The lungs increase in size as well. These wonderful adaptations enable the runner to run for longer periods of time without tiring. The ability to do this is important for the point I am trying to make about handling bullying (I'm getting there, I promise!).

After about a month on the track team, I noticed that I felt euphoric following my runs, which gradually increased in duration and intensity as my body became more able to meet the demands of the workouts. As time passed, these feelings of post-running euphoria-- and increased self-confidence-- gradually increased in duration until I felt almost constantly happy... except, of course, when I was bullied. But the fact that running induced this state of mind-- relatively new for me-- seemed to have significant changes on my brain. One day, while heading to class, I had an epiphany: the bullying I experienced was just that-- bullying. It was abuse. It was harassment. Some of it was physical assault. It was not an "understandable response to a horribly annoying and weird person." It was not me "bringing this treatment on myself." As I strode through the hall I realized something important: What I had been experiencing was not my fault. I made myself a promise: from now on, I was going to stand up for myself. I was not going to let anybody treat me like a virus that needed to be destroyed. 

I was to be put to the test that very day. A few months before, my ceramics teacher had sent me to the room across the hall to work because she could not stop the kids from throwing clay at me. She did this for my safety, but it obviously sent the other students a message that I had been banished from the room. It did not stop any of the kids from sneaking into the room where I was working and harassing me. This happened, too, on the day that I promised that I would henceforth defend myself. Two knuckle-dragging guys entered the room and, as always, started taunting me in the usual manner, calling me names, stealing my tools, and trying to throw balls of clay at me. That day, I was also listening to the soundtrack from Annie. Of course, these boys decided to use that against me as well. Before they could say anything, I was already embarrassed. But I had made myself a promise, and I would see it through to the end. If I had to fight, I would fight. If I broke both hands while defending myself, so be it. 

"What the f*** are you listening to?" one of the boys taunted.

Normally, I would have said, "Nothing," and hoped that the boys wouldn't figure out that I was listening to soundtrack from a musical that many deem "babyish." Instead, I said, "Annie. You got a problem with that?" 

Did they further taunt me about my choice in music? Yes. They even went on to call me a "f***ing circus freak" and told me that the teacher sent me in here because she didn't want me in the class. I maintained eye contact and said something to the effect of, "Okay, so? Why is that any of your business?" 

After a few more minutes of this back-and-forth, I said, "Okay guys, I've had enough fun for today. Why don't you leave?" When they refused, I told them again to leave. I said something like, "I am supposed to be in here, and you're not. And I am asking you to get out. Now!" 

The boys grabbed my tools and ran to the ceramics room, but not without turning up the stereo so that the entire hallway could hear my choice of music. I recall thinking, "I'll never hear the end of this," followed by, "So what?" I ran back to the ceramics room, retrieved my tools, and returned to the room where I had been working. I returned the stereo to its normal volume. The boys did not come in for the rest of the class. 

A number of things happened that day: I have no doubt that the boys thought that they scored yet another "victory" against me. I know that I was shaking while I defended myself. But something else happened: I had at last mustered the strength to defend my dignity. I think the boys came in to harass me maybe during one or two classes after that. Given that their "visits" had been nearly daily before, this was a significant change. Did my teacher suddenly have control over her class when she did not before? I doubt it. Was the decrease in frequency of visits a coincidence? Perhaps. But I think what happened was I did exactly what the bullies were not used to: I stood up for myself. I defended my dignity. I made it clear to them that I was not going to tolerate any abuse. I had won. In fact, very few people bothered me for the rest of the school year.

Clearly, the vigorous exercise I engaged in every day improved my mood and enhanced my self-esteem. Why? I assure you that my experience is not unique. Many runners report feelings of intense euphoria following a run. It turns out that running-- or any intense physical activity, such as lap-swimming-- stimulates the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters that induce euphoria and act as natural long-term anti-depressants. What does this have to do with evolution? Well, I personally think that every bit of psychology has something to do with evolution; I think without evolution psychology doesn't even make sense. But what happens, exactly? Why the runner's high? Some scientists suggests that runner's high was an adaptation to make prolonged and extensive running-- endurance running, that is, which puts great strain on the muscles-- more tolerable to our ancestors while they pursued prey over long distances (this is called persistence hunting). The neurotransmitters stimulated by running acted as natural pain-killers.

Other benefits from regular vigorous exercise include: neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells), increased attention span, increased energy and motivation, improved memory, and increased ability to learn.

Aside from the evolutionary explanation as to why running gave me the strength to stand up to the bullies, there are some important lessons to be learned:

1. If you or someone you care about is being bullied, it is not your/his/her fault!

2. Ignoring bullies does not work. The bullying only stopped because I defended myself, not because I "just ignored" the bullying, not because I changed something about myself, but because I DEFENDED MYSELF!

3. The best weapon against bullying is self-esteem. Period. Maintain eye-contact when possible and firmly tell the bullies to stop. The first time it may backfire, but eventually the bullies will figure out that what they are doing is something you will not accept.

4. If you are overweight your brain chemistry will change and can have adverse effects on your mood. Talk to your doctor about losing weight, not because of body image (the most important thing to remember about how your body looks is whether you like it) but because of the chemical changes that occur as a result of being overweight.

I should also point out, however, that nobody's life follows a real story arc, complete with climax and resolution. I admit that I got into some terrible habits  while at university including overeating and not exercising and went from being skinny to being overweight; at one point I was close to obesity. At university, I also went through a bit of depression for many complex reasons; this was, I'm sure, only exacerbated by the chemical changes in my brain. Fortunately, in the past year I finally conquered my weight problem: since last October, I lost thirty pounds (for a total of forty since I was at my heaviest a few years back) and am at a healthy weight. I have since embraced running again and plan to run a 5K soon. Exercising, whether running, swimming, or lifting weights, is something that has become a regular part of my life and a near-daily ritual. Losing the excess baggage and getting back into shape, I feel like I have woken up from deep coma. In some ways, I am happier than I have ever been in my life.

Exercise is important for more than just the obvious reasons. Remember that.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

No, We Don't Have Just ONE Interest!

The other day I was telling yet another person that I believe that Dr. Jack Kevorkian had Asperger's Syndrome. The woman I was talking to said something like, "I don't think so. He was interested in everything, and many people with AS are interested in only ONE thing." She went on to say that she has worked with kids with AS. Isn't it important to keep in mind that A) she's talking about KIDS whereas I'm talking about an ADULT; and B) she only sees a small sample of the AS population in these kids?

Yes, it's true that SOME people with AS are only interested in one thing, but MANY others-- myself included-- are interested in many things. It's just that at any given time we may be more intensely interested in a particular area; it does not mean we don't have other interests. We can also be intensely interested in many areas at once. Dr. Kevorkian indeed did have many interests, and he was quite hyperinterested in all of them. Yes, he was very hyperinterested in getting euthanasia legalized (how could any neurotypical person pursue that for almost a decade?) but that was one of myriad things in which he buried himself. 

I, too, am someone with many interests. Having more than one interest does not disqualify someone from having Asperger's Syndrome.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Bullying: An Evolutionary Perspective

Sorry for the lull in blog posts. Something terrible and unexpected came up in the first week of August and I haven't really been able to relax until the past couple weeks. I'd rather not get into the details in a public forum but... enough with the apologies, on with the post. 

Last week I took an overnight trip back to New York City where I attended an event promoting Richard Dawkins's new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder.  Dawkins devotes a small portion of his book-- a few paragraphs at most-- to discussing the school bullying he witnessed as a boy. Fortunately, Dawkins himself was spared, but he indicates in his memoir that he is somewhat guilt-stricken for not stepping in when other children were bullied and that he has a difficult time reconciling this aspect of the boy that he was with the man that he became. Since Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, he briefly speculates the evolutionary explanation as to why kids bully and also compares the bullies'-- and apathetic bystanders'-- state of mind to that of Nazis who tortured and killed their victims in the Holocaust. I found myself becoming a bit fixated on this insignificant aspect of the book because I, too, have wondered deeply about the evolutionary psychology behind bullying since I was sixteen years old. The interesting thing was that back then I had never even heard the term "evolutionary psychology." 

As are many kids with Asperger's Syndrome, I was bullied severely, in my case from 2nd grade (age eight) to the end of 9th grade (age fifteen). I entered 10th grade at a high school for which very few kids in my middle school (grades 7-9 in my district) were zoned. For the most part, since I had a "fresh start," I was not picked on. However, I was still lonely because I could not connect with anybody. As I often did when lonely, I retreated into myself and found myself philosophizing about the world around me and having intense internal monologues. As I watched a number of the silly and sometimes absurd social rituals performed by other kids in order to "fit in"-- such as wearing what's "in style," listening to the "cool" music, etc.-- I began to wonder if everything we do-- directly or indirectly-- is based on the instinct to reproduce and that bullying is a byproduct from that instinct. Perhaps, I thought, the "different" kid is seen as a threat to group survival. This idea came to full fruition in early 1998 at age seventeen. At the time I was naive enough to believe I had come up with a brilliant new idea. Somebody should have said, "This isn't exactly a new concept," and put the books of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Judith Rich Harris in my hands. Nevertheless, since then I have formed a great deal of ideas about the evolutionary psychology behind bullying. 

Be forewarned: I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on evolution. The ideas I want to present are based on my observations, experiences, and what I have read, and if anybody more knowledgeable in this area wants to correct me, I invite you to do so. I recognize that I could be wrong about many of these ideas that I want to put forth.

First, let's look at the bullying I experienced. In elementary school, it was mostly childish name calling. I was told, "You're weird," and called names like "space cadet" and "alien" because, like many kids with Asperger's, I was often off in my own little world. Gym class was a nightmare. I was often ridiculed and humiliated for being bad at sports. For example, if the gym teacher made me goalie in a soccer game, my team groaned while the opposing team cheered. Harassment also delved into threats of physical harm. Once, at age ten, I was riding my bike when some boys ambushed me and chased me up the street. One shouted, "Let's kill her!" Part of me believed that these boys really wanted to kill me.

My situation got quantitatively worse in middle school. The name calling became more bitingly personal, and threatening phone calls and physical violence became an almost daily part of my life. Other kids sometimes told me that I was worthless, was a freak, and some even told me to go kill myself. In 8th grade, a girl ambushed me and pinned me to the wall, her hands on my throat while other kids watched and laughed from the opposite wall. I struggled but could not push the girl off. I actually found that I could not even call for help as I was not getting enough air. Fortunately, another girl intervened and stopped the assailant.  Later that day, the entire 8th grade knew about the incident and was having a good laugh over it. Life was at its worst in 9th grade. Every single day in ceramics class a group of girls threw giant balls of clay at me. When I told the teacher about what was happening, she imparted the fantastically ignorant advice to "just ignore it." 

So where does this tie in to evolutionary psychology? I have provided extreme examples of bullying in both verbal and physical forms in which there were invocations of death. Even when the bully is not taking it to that extreme, I think what it comes down to is that he or she wants the victim dead. Why? In our more primitive days, there were a finite amount of resources and the best chance for the group to survive was to cooperate. Part of cooperation involves conformity in order to minimize conflict. Additionally, people recognized each other as being part of their tribe based on similar appearances AND customs. The problem is, biological evolution did not "account for" technological evolution, which begat a world in which food was readily available and in which people from all over the world would encounter one another. I believe that we are still acting on the survival instincts to "filter out" the person deemed as a threat, the person who is "different." It is no wonder, then, that kids with Asperger's Syndrome experience some of the worst bullying. 

Another possible reason for being threatened by the "different" person is that behavior that is perceived as "odd" might be indicative of disease. Primatologist Jane Goodall once observed a polio-affected, partially paralyzed chimpanzee dragging himself back to the troop after a sojourn into the forest. The troop first reacted in fear to their former "friend" and then in anger assaulted and, possibly, tried to kill him. Eventually, Goodall intervened. The ill chimpanzee was subsequently tolerated in the troop, but was mostly shunned. 

Something else that I have observed, in my own experience and in working with kids, is that bullying is quantitatively worse in larger groups. When I attended a small private school in sixth grade, I found that people were much more accepting of me and my quirks. The same holds true at the overnight camp I went to which had a grand total of 150 kids. At a large summer camp (300 kids) that I worked at, however, I witnessed a great deal of bullying among the kids. And at my middle school with 1,000-1,100 kids? Forget it. For me that was the worst. If it is true that the size of the group is positively correlated with the amount of bullying (although the age of the kids is obviously a consideration), then why? Once again, let's look at our ancestors. They lived in tribal villages of roughly 150 people. Not only is a middle school of 1,000-1,100 students large, but perhaps it is perversely large. There will not be one, or two "tribes" (as in a private school or a summer camp) but several, simulating the tribal conflicts of our ancestors. The one not pulling his weight, so to speak, is a waste of resources for any tribe and must be destroyed!

There is also the issue of safety in numbers. One day I stormed out of my history class, in tears, because some of my former "friends" were picking one me, which they did nearly every day. A student teacher had been supervising the class while my history teacher stepped out. I encountered him in the hallway. He saw that I was in tears, shook his head, and said, "Every day with you it's the same thing. You can't handle your problems and you end up crying. Go to guidance." Because I was the only one getting picked on and because it was a group of my former "friends" and their friends picking on me, the implication was damning: several people against one. The "one" must be the problem. My ceramics teacher also advised me to go to the guidance office after a particularly horrible clay fight that ended with kids cheering as I left the room. Why weren't the bullies advised to go to guidance to get advice on how to handle their overwhelming compulsion to cause emotional and physical pain to the school "oddball"? Because there were enough of them, enough of them to normalize this absurd behavior. Even in the eyes of adults, I was the one who needed to be fixed, not they. I was the one not "contributing" to the tribe. Safety in numbers, too, would explain why bystanders don't step in and often are indifferent to the suffering of the victim: they don't want to be the odd one out and become victims themselves! Is it possible that natural selection favored those who lacked empathy towards "outsiders?"

Finally, I want to invoke the Asch Experiment, a study executed during the 1950s that tested individuals' motivation to conform to group consensus. Each subject was told that he was participating in an experiment about visual perception with seven other people. In actuality, he was placed in a room with seven actors, people who were aware what the experiment was really about. The participants were shown a reference card with a line on it, followed by a card with three lines of varying lengths. Participants were then asked to state which of the three lines matched in length the single line on the reference card. The group sat in a way that assured that the experimental "guinea pig" was the last to state which line he thought was the same length as the one on the reference card, that is, after everybody in the group had given his answer. In two trials, the actors were told to unanimously give the correct response, and in the third trial they were told to unanimously give the incorrect response. The first two trials were uneventful, with the participant feeling at ease as he gave the same correct answer as the actors. In the third trial the subject found himself in a dilemma and questioning whether the answer he was prepared to give was actually correct. Ultimately, the subject generally caved in to peer pressure and gave the same incorrect answer as the actors.

What is scary about the Asch experiment is this: The peer pressure in question was not overt. The actors weren't calling the subject names or even saying much of anything. But just the fact that they had a different answer was enough to pressure the subject to question his. In fact, years later the experiments were revisited in a slightly different format. Brain imaging studies indicated that the subjects did not change their answer out of fear of being the odd one out; rather, their actual perception changed. What do these experiments have to do with bullying? I fear that they have everything to do with it. As I look back on my own experiences, I recall in 7th grade that a good friend of mine stood up to the bullies for me. By 9th grade, however, she was also bullying me. One day she approached me and said, "Everybody wants to beat you up." I glared at her and, in an even tone, said, "Why?" And she said, "Because you're you." Peer pressure ultimately got the best of her. I don't think she independently decided she no longer liked me. I don't even think that she consciously decided to side with the bullies out of fear of becoming a victim. Rather, I think the groupthink involved literally altered her perception. I am not sure if the others said, "If you hang around Julie, we won't be your friends anymore." Even if they didn't, I suspect that her observation of their attitude towards me was pressure enough. Jodee Blanco's memoir Please Stop Laughing at Me relates several experiences of Blanco's former friends conforming to peer pressure and becoming bullies. Conformity helped our ancestors survive (at the expense of others' lives), but today we know better. We should, at any rate.

I want to end this blog post with a few more thoughts. School bullying is an issue I think about all the time: while running, while swimming laps, while lifting weights, while drawing, while writing, while watching TV, and while merging with reckless drivers onto I-95. For any parents reading this, telling your child to "just ignore it" is terrible advice. Also, keep in mind that some teachers might even say that to a kid who is physically bullied, as did my ceramics teacher. But think about it: if someone throws rocks at an adult while taking a walk, that is considered assault. But a kid experiencing something similar is supposed to IGNORE it? One problem is that many adults don't see bullying for what it is-- bullying. They don't know how painful words can be. They don't realize that pushing, throwing clay, or even attempted strangling are forms of physical assault. They often downplay the seriousness of the bullies' actions, calling it "teasing," "joking around," "kids being kids," a "rite of passage," and sometimes even comment that the victim is "bringing it on herself." Call it what you want. But to borrow a quote from one of my intellectual heroes, Dr. Jack Kevorkian (albeit from a very obviously different context), "But it doesn't bother me what you call it. I know what it is." Verbal and physical abuse are just that-- abuse. Both cause emotional pain, and research indicates that many of the same neural circuits for processing physical pain also process emotional pain. Science has done a great deal of good in helping us to understand how the human mind works, and I am glad that the brain imaging studies are there to concretely illustrate just how painful verbal abuse can be. Science is also helping us understand why bullying happens. Maybe next it will tell us how to eliminate it.