June 14th, 2012

A Neurological Basis for Self-Blaming Targets of Workplace Bullying

Blaming oneself for horrific incidents foisted on us by others is a characteristic common to individuals bullied at work. Although witnesses see clearly that it is the bully who controls all incidents and assaults the target without invitation. Nevertheless, the typical scenario involves the target thinking that something about them is flawed and discoverable by the bully, a form of self-blame or guilt.

And we know that 39% of bullied targets state that they have been diagnosed with clinical depression. Research by others links self-blame to a cognitive vulnerability to major depression. An amazing study published on June 4, 2012 mapped the neuroanatomy of guilt (self-blame) feelings experienced by people with depression contrasted with people who did not suffer depression.

Neuroscientists at the University of Manchester (England) and in Brazil began with the premise that moral feelings (both guilt and indignation/anger) trigger social meanings which activate the right superior anterior temporal lobe area of the brain (ATL). In healthy participants, guilt also activates two other brain areas — the subgenual cingulate cortex and adjacent septal region (SCSR). The SCSR is associated with social conceptual knowledge. When others are blamed, the ATL is disconnected (decoupled) from the SCSR. That is, only the ATL neurons fire and not those in the SCSR.

Depressed individuals showed a bias toward self-blame in earlier studies. This new study sought to discover the neuroanatomy of self-blame in both depressed and non-depressed individuals.

For this study 25 formerly depressed participants met the diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder (according to DSM-IV-TR definitions) but had been in remission for at least 1 year and had no alcohol or substance abuse history. The healthy control group participants (n=25) had no history of depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

While in the fMRI apparatus, participants read 90 written statements describing actions that run counter to social and moral values. The actions were committed either by the participant or their best friend. For instance, the participant or friend supposedly acted stingily or tactlessly. Half were negative, half were negated positive statements (“did not act generously”). They had 5 seconds to decide after reading each statement whether they would feel “extremely unpleasant” or “mildly unpleasant” given the scenario.

After the scanning session, each person chose the feeling they felt most strongly — guilt, contempt/disgust toward self, shame, indignation/anger toward self, or the same emotions directed toward others.

fMRI results showed that the remitted depression group ATL activation was not connected with the SCSR region activation when guilt was induced and felt. This did not happen when the indignation/anger was experienced. Researchers called this selective decoupling.

Individuals with higher levels of self-reported self-blame (a self-hate score from the IGQ-67 scale), who tended to be in the remitted depression group showed lower degrees of ATL-SCSR coupling (connections) for guilt. Physiologically, the connections exist. The decoupling is functional. Depressed people’s brains do not seem to allow them access to general social processing (the ability to put matters into an appropriate social context, e.g.,to understand what it means to act stingily) when guilt is concerned. When angry at others, the connection is activated.

The researchers conclude that their findings bolster “known interactions of psychosocial learning and heritable neurobiological pathogenesis of major depressive disorder.” The power of experience and the tendency to automatically turn toward self-blame can explain why the dysfunction exists for depressed individuals even one year in remission from depression.

The disconnect between brain regions (ATL and SCSR) increases proneness to suffering major depressive disorder. Also, the degeneration of the right superior ATL is associated with selective loss of social conceptual knowledge.

The authors conclude that this study was the first to identify the neural mechanism of major depressive disorder vulnerability that accounts for self-blaming biases.

Implications for bullied targets

Crudely stated, depression may alter the ATL neurological structure, which in turn can account for the depressed individual’s lost ability to place their experience into a social context that could facilitate healing or an escape from that depression.

A key aspect of the battered spouse syndrome is the victim’s inability to perceive that alternative living arrangements exist, thus they inexplicably remain in harm’s way. In like fashion, bullied targets often cannot believe that an alternate reality can be found. We have always explained this lost ability as the result of a stress-induced narrowed perceptual field. The current study suggests that underlying the behavioral changes from depression have physical neurological problems with regions of the brain communicating with other regions that prevent.

Read the study

S. Green, M.A. Lambon Ralph, J. Moll, J.F.W. Deakin & R. Zahn. Guilt-Selective Functional Disconnection of Anterior Temporal and Subgenual Cortices in Major Depressive Disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, June 4, 2012.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 14th, 2012 at 10:26 am and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Neuroscience & Genetics, Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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