Rudeness As a Neurotoxin

7 01 2011

Thanks, Mike, for sending me this article by Douglas Fields entitled “Rudeness Is a Neurotoxin”. Fields states that the aim for his article is “not to be preachy,” but meant to be an honest assessment from a neurodevelopmental scientist’s perspective.

Here he claims that studies have accumulated to support the notion that American society and it’s all-too-familiar rudeness have become not only socially toxic, but gives you brain damage. He cites inspiration from his recent trip to Japan and 1950s American television.

It’s an interesting idea, but his conclusions aren’t really supported by his argument.  If it were true, then you’d think that children in Japan, for example, weren’t exposed to the same social stressors–which isn’t true. I wholeheartedly believe that the Japanese culture is an intensely sophisticated one and one to be admired for many reasons, but not because his superficial viewing of the appearance of “politeness”.  In fact, this naïve description really doesn’t do Japanese culture justice. Although, I myself, had a very brief exposure working in Okinawa (where I also lived until I was 10 years old) as a adult for one year, it’s obvious that what contributes to the a major difference in their society in the difference in the importance of relationships-not exposure to mean parents, peers, or media (have you seen manga?). Americans chronically seem to feel their lack of “community”—this is in part what the organic movement, among many others, has counted on for it’s marketing. And as far as the” Leave it to Beaver Days”—let’s not forget other rampant social stressors of that time (racism, sexism, homophobia), which arguably were worse then than now.

Second the data he cites are more exciting and confirmatory to the beliefs that people want to hold (e.g. “ People are jerks, don’t you agree?”). It seems that the most compelling for people is the study citing that verbal abuse damages your corpus callosum.  An important note is that the technology used here (Diffusion Tensor Imaging) may report differences in the corpus callosum of abused individuals, but this does not definitively tell us how this translates into altered function in the brain.  Furthermore, it’s a mathematical estimation of anatomy, not actual anatomy. Even if these data could suggest that neurodegeneration (suggested by increased mean and radial diffusivity and decreased fractional anisotropy) was occurring in abused individuals, there could be larger factors at hand altering their development including socioeconomic status and lifestyle choices. In addition, there’s a bit of a bias. Is this really representative of your average populations—there is a variation in how well one would remember their peer stress in middle school (I would also argue this varies greatly depending on your age—this was much different for me personally as an 18-year old vs. 25-year old, the age range used in the verbal questionnaire portion of study, not to mention the smaller group “young adults” used in the imaging studies)?

I’m curious how this article and the data cited will continue to impact audiences.  Will middle-schoolers be warned of giving their classmates brain damage?  Will they then be less likely or more compelled to be mean? Could you be criminally charged for future assault? And more importantly, do we really need a biological substrate of how people’s cruelty can hurt one another?

I do feel like these data could be potentially valuable in how they might represent predisposition to developing later neurodegenerative diseases or illnesses. Perhaps in combination with their exposome profiles…but Fields chose a sexier topic.

The crux of his hypothesis is that

“it is stressful for individuals (people or animals-this is not uniquely human) to interact with strangers, and also with other members of a working group and family members. As the size of the group increases, so do the number of interactions between individuals, thus raising the level of stress if not controlled by formal, stereotyped behavior, which in human society is called “manners.”

While it is stressful to interact with strangers (this is also true for animals), maybe the bigger issue is how much of our families in our society have become strangers. Long gone are the days where you can walk to your extended family’s house.  Where is the focus on the evaluation of the strength of social bonds in these contexts with family members? In addition, about 5 of my friends have either just had new babies or will have them in a few months.  As they are all working, women, and there is no paid leave in this country for my colleagues, they will be sending their children to day-care when the children are 2.5 months old.  Basically, when they still fit in a catcher’s mitt.

Frankly, Field’s article was a bit preachy hidden under a thin veil of science. Let’s not forget that “formal” manners can be their own tyrannical violent force and even can exhibit class-ism and damaging, dated cultural norms. In Japan, these formalities often can illustrate formal inflexible roles in your relationships to others (not just a simple pleasant behavior for foreigners to superficially enjoy). You can be a good person without the formalities. And you can focus less on being rude and focus more on the familiar by cultivating your relationships and perhaps making fewer people strangers.