A recent study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the brain activity of 51 male-female love couples while they experienced intimate partner hostility in real time. They discovered that aggressiveness against intimate partners was connected with abnormal activity in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, which has various tasks, one of which is the ability to nurture perceptions of connection with and worth of other people.
A new study performed by Virginia Commonwealth University researchers examined the brain activity of 51 male-female love couples while they experienced intimate partner hostility in real time using functional magnetic resonance imaging. They discovered that aggressiveness against intimate partners was linked to abnormal activity in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, which has various tasks, one of which is the ability to nurture beliefs of connection with and worth of others.
“We found that aggression towards intimate partners has a unique signature in the brain,” said lead author David Chester, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “There is something distinct happening at the neural level when people decide whether to harm their romantic partners, a process that differs in a meaningful way from decisions about whether to harm friends or strangers.”
The research was led by Chester’s Social Psychology and Neuroscience Lab, which seeks to understand the psychological and biological processes that motivate and constrain aggressive behavior. The study, “Neural Mechanisms of Intimate Partner Aggression,” will be published in the journal Biological Psychology.
The researchers were able to analyse couples’ brain activity during intimate partner violence by having them play a computer game against three different persons, one at a time: their romantic partner, a close friend, and a stranger. They were actually playing against a machine.
Participants were challenged to press a button quicker than their opponents. The loser will be punished with a terrible blast of sound on their headphones, they were warned. The researchers evaluated hostility by allowing participants and hypothetical opponents to choose the loudness of a sound explosion, with higher volume reflecting more violence and lower volume representing less aggression.
“Basically, we gave participants repeated opportunities to hurt or not hurt each of these three people, and we examined how brain activity changed based on who they thought they were hurting,” Chester said. “But … no one was actually hurt by this computer game, participants unknowingly played against the computer.”
The findings of the researchers also went beyond the lab and into the real world. They had participants complete a validated questionnaire in which they were questioned if they had committed acts of intimate relationship violence previous to the research.
They discovered that reduced activity in the medial prefrontal cortex predicted some of the subjects’ actual acts of intimate partner violence.
“We expected to see that intimate partner aggression was linked to a unique signature of brain activity,” Chester said. “What we were surprised about was the ability of this brain signature to predict real-world intimate partner violence.”
They also looked at how the brain activity of men and women influenced one other’s hostility. They discovered that the male partner’s brain response to perceived provocation predicted women’s intimate relationship aggressiveness.
“This result fits with the well-established finding that women’s intimate partner aggression may very often be in self-defense,” Chester said.
He claims that the study’s findings reveal fresh insights into brain areas that are likely to be effective targets for therapies aimed at reducing intimate partner violence and assisting research in developing an accurate brain model of such damaging behaviours.
Chester went on to say that the researchers handled this investigation with extreme caution. Couples were pre-screened to ensure they were not at high risk of domestic violence. The researchers debriefed each subject individually to ensure that they were ready to be reunited with their companion. They also thoroughly debriefed both couples as a pair to ensure that there were no residual, negative consequences from the research.
“We had robust protocols in place in case anything went wrong, to safeguard the well-being of our participants,” Chester said. “It is of paramount importance that studies into intimate partner aggression prioritize the safety and well-being of their participants, and we believe we achieved this goal.”
While this study focused on male-female intimate partner violence, Chester believes that future research should look at similar relationships across a wider range of gender identities and sexual orientations.