Skip to Content
Advanced Search

The biology of soul murder

Brownlee, S. (1996, November 11). "The biology of soul murder: Fear can harm a child’s brain. Living with fear puts children at high risk for problems later in life. Is it reversible?" U.S. News and World Report, pp. 71-72.


This article is prefaced by a picture of two very small boys standing in rapt attention while medics treat the victim of a gunshot wound in their Houston neighborhood. The article describes three little girls at Houston’s Texas Children’s Hospital. Nothing about their appearance, as they sit quietly in the psychiatric clinic’s plastic chairs, betrays the fact that their apartment had been raided by two armed men who tied them up, shot their older sister in the head, and threatened the youngest of them (3 years of age) with a gun.

Now, two days later and despite their calm appearance, their hearts are still racing at more than 100 beats a minute, their blood pressure remains high and, inside their heads, the biological chemicals of fear are changing their brains.

Bruce Perry, child psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine and Children’s Hospital, is a researcher who is finding that trauma, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse can have severe effects on a child’s developing brain.

People look at kids who seem so normal after these experiences and say, "all they need is a little love." Actually, the results are far longer lasting.

What is being discovered are new insights into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and nature of the human brain. Biologists once viewed the human brain as genetically programmed. Now they are viewing it as much more plastic or malleable molded by both genes and experience throughout life.

A single traumatic experience can alter an adult’s brain: a horrifying battle, for instance, may induce the flashbacks, depression, and hair-trigger response of post-traumatic stress disorder. And researchers are finding that abuse and neglect early in life can have even more devastating consequences, tangling both the chemistry and the architecture of children’s brains and leaving them at risk for drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and psychiatric problems later in life.


Trauma’s toll on a child’s brain begins with fear. Real or imagined threats produce surges of adrenaline. Pounding heart, taut muscles, and anger ready the child for the fight or flight response.

Research on neglected and abused children points to a harmful imbalance of cortisol in the brain. Megan Gunnar’s research in Romanian orphanages suggests that cognitive and developmental delays correlate with irregular cortisol levels. Gunnar also concluded that this damage may cause memory lapses, anxiety, and an inability to control emotional outbursts.

The research of Martin Teicher (psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts) found fewer left-hemisphere nerve-cells connections in abused children. Children with the most abnormal recordings were the most likely to be self-destructive or aggressive.

Bruce Perry’s research demonstrated a variety of other disturbances in physiology, thinking, and behavior.

Many had elevated resting heart rates, temperature, and blood pressure. Hypervigilance is common. Abused kids continually scan their surroundings for danger and overinterpret the actions of others. An innocent playground bump may be seen as a direct threat. And as many as half of the children from some violent neighborhoods show symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), compared with about 6 percent of the general population.

Children who are aroused from fear, says Perry, can’t take in cognitive information. They’re too busy watching the teacher for threatening gestures, and not listening to what she’s saying.

Frank Putnam (child psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health) is performing a longitudinal study (since 1990) of sexually abused girls. His findings include:

  • More evidence of depression & suicide attempts.
  • Many showed initial symptoms of PTSD.
  • A gradual decline in their IQ scores.
  • Being likely to be rated by teachers as not likable.


Although these symptoms and the response of many teachers is not encouraging, the brain’s plasticity, human resiliency (which has been the lifetime study of child psychologist, Emmy Werner, in Hawaii) and the power of loving mentoring point in a positive direction. Apparently, some children and young people are more resilient than others. But all can respond to loving care and secure structure. Researchers now believe loving relationships also can help older children reset their response to stress when it has been derailed by abuse. This is not always easy. Even a loving touch can sometimes set off a tantrum. Fortunately, researchers are also discovering drugs that can check the "fight or flight" response.

Failing these children and teenagers may be short-sighted, the researchers like Teicher remind us. They are less likely to live up to their economic potential, and are more likely to wind up in prison, on drugs, or in psychiatric units. The cost on society of having a child who has gone through abuse is enormous.


  1. Have you known any children or young people with symptoms like these? Is it likely you might?
  2. What new information did you learn from this article and what most impressed you?
  3. Do you take exception to anything in this article? What questions would you like answered or have discussed.
  4. How can you use this information in your youth work to train others?

Dean Borgman cCYS