Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me… We all know how untrue that childhood incantation is. Words do hurt. Ridicule, distain, humiliation, taunting, all cause injury, and when it is delivered in childhood from a child’s peers, verbal abuse causes more than emotional trauma. It inflicts lasting physical effects on brain structure.
The remarkable thing about the human brain is that it develops after birth. Unlike most animals whose brains are cast at birth, the human brain is so underdeveloped at birth that we cannot even walk for months. Self awareness does not develop for years. Personality, cognitive abilities, and skills, take decades to develop, and these attributes develop differently in every person. This is because development and wiring of the human brain are guided by our experiences during childhood and adolescence. From a biological perspective, this increases the odds that an individual will compete and reproduce successfully in the environment the individual is born into, rather than the environment experienced by our cave-man ancestors and recorded in our genes through natural selection. Developing the human brain out of the womb cheats evolution, and this is the reason for the success of our species.
When that environment is hostile or socially unhealthy, development of the brain is affected, and often it is impaired. Early childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, or even witnessing domestic violence, have been shown to cause abnormal physical changes in the brain of children, with lasting effects that predisposes the child to developing psychological disorders. This type of brain scarring is well established now by human brain imaging studies, but prior to the recent study by Martin Teicher and colleagues at Harvard Medical School, taunting and other verbal abuse experienced by middle school children from their peers was not thought to leave a structural imprint on the developing brain. But it does, according to their new study published on-line in advance of print 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, depression, anger, hostility, dissociation, and drug abuse than others in the study.