Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Is Bullying A Public Health Issue?
Lise Feldman Barrett says emotional harm is worse for your health than physical harm. The legal system needs to catch up to the science.
Lisa Feldman Barrett does not want her leg to be broken. But she’ll choose a fractured tibia over the atrophying of her hippocampus any day. A stupid choice in the shaky world of hypotheticals, she tells me, but truth is it’s easier to mend a bone than grow back neurons.
Barrett knows plenty about neurons. A University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, Barrett’s new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, is a groundbreaking investigation into how our brain creates emotions. While I’m going to discuss this process in an upcoming article, the timeliness of her theory on neuronal damage and justice cannot be ignored. Suffice to say that instead of being reactionary animals in a world of stimulation bombardment, Barrett believes, with plenty of evidence, that humans are creators of cognitive and emotional experiences every step of the way. Emotions don’t happen to you; you create them.
In her book she contemplates how the government treats the concept of harm:
The law protects the integrity of your anatomical body but not the integrity of your mind, even though your body is just a container for the organ that makes you who you are—your brain. Emotional harm is not considered real unless accompanied by physical harm.
If she were to break my leg, she says, she would be held accountable. But what if she berated me? Or inflicted casual brutality, as, say, countless trolls on Twitter every day? Communication and social skills are two reasons we’ve evolved into an apex predator that took control of the planet, yet the same skills compromise our public health when we peck out immature rants on social media. As she says, with a slight laugh,
The best thing for a human nervous system is another human, but the worst thing for the human nervous system is another human.
This problem is especially damaging to children. Bullying and abuse have long-term effects. Children who are bullied become sick more easily throughout their life due to compromised immune systems. Their hippocampus and parts of their prefrontal cortex suffer neuronal death. Chances they’ll develop diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers increase.
Even worse, their lives might be shortened. The protective caps at the end of your chromosomes are called telomeres. Each time a cell divides your telomeres are shortened. When they end up too short, you die. One of the main adversaries of telomere length is stress. Bullied children have shorter telomeres.
Barrett recalls that old trope about sticks and stones—“names can kill neurons” is how she phrases it. Since our legal system does not associate words with weaponry she believes our society is ill-equipped to deal with pervasive bullying. And this is no longer a childhood phenomenon. We elected one of the biggest. What some call strength is really destruction en masse. Yet the blame is not aimed at him alone.
If you look at what has happened to public discourse and entertainment over the last decade you can see that we have a culture of casual brutality. The way that people look at and speak to each other has really deteriorated.
She mentions network television sitcom research that investigated the frequency in which verbal abuse, bullying, and relational aggression occurs. Once every four to five minutes a character is denigrated, usually to a laugh track. The victim often responds casually, taking it in stride as if no offense has been rendered. That’s not what happens in real life.
Barrett admits she’s not a lawyer and is not equipped to deal with the specificities of law. Yet she believes emotional pain needs to be considered. In the long run it’s more damaging to the health of victims. Because emotional pain is not quantifiable in the way a broken leg is it’s difficult to measure the effects of bullying and verbal abuse. Yet over 20 percent of children have reported being a victim or perpetrator of bullying, while 13 percent have been involved in electronic bullying. Their pain and suffering is real.
Though uncertain how to approach this growing problem she says the research is crystal clear. Barrett casts aside any notion this is a liberal plea; the evidence is not debatable. And it’s not only affecting children. She links the record numbers of people on opioids and anti-anxiety and depression meds as part of the larger problem. Words can harm you.
If you and I wanted to sit down and create an environment that would make people sick and distressed, we couldn’t have done a better job, frankly. This is why people think the political climate in the United States is very seriously a public health issue.
Our toxic political climate is doing irreparable damage to the national nervous system. We can no longer turn to elected officials for guidance, which brings into question their leadership capabilities. Our life spans are being shortened tweet by tweet. What’s trickling down helps no one, perpetrator or victim. We’re all in this together. The longer it takes to realize that, the more we all suffer.
Derek's latest book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, is out now. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.