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Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain

Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain

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by Douglas Fields

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The startling new science behind sudden acts of violence and the nine triggers this groundbreaking researcher has uncovered

We all have a rage circuit we can’t fully control once it is engaged as R. Douglas Fields, PhD, reveals in this essential book for our time.  The daily headlines are filled with examples of otherwise rational people


The startling new science behind sudden acts of violence and the nine triggers this groundbreaking researcher has uncovered

We all have a rage circuit we can’t fully control once it is engaged as R. Douglas Fields, PhD, reveals in this essential book for our time.  The daily headlines are filled with examples of otherwise rational people with no history of violence or mental illness suddenly snapping in a domestic dispute, an altercation with police, or road rage attack. We all wish to believe that we are in control of our actions, but the fact is, in certain circumstances we are not. The sad truth is that the right trigger in the right circumstance can unleash a fit of rage in almost anyone.

But there is a twist: Essentially the same pathway in the brain that can result in a violent outburst can also enable us to act heroically and altruistically before our conscious brain knows what we are doing. Think of the stranger who dives into a frigid winter lake to save a drowning child.

Dr. Fields is an internationally recognized neurobiologist and authority on the brain and the cellular mechanisms of memory. He has spent years trying to understand the biological basis of rage and anomalous violence, and he has concluded that our culture’s understanding of the problem is based on an erroneous assumption: that rage attacks are the product of morally or mentally defective individuals, rather than a capacity that we all possess. 

Fields shows that violent behavior is the result of the clash between our evolutionary hardwiring and triggers in our contemporary world. Our personal space is more crowded than ever, we get less sleep, and we just aren't as fit as our ancestors. We need to understand how the hardwiring works and how to recognize the nine triggers. With a totally new perspective, engaging narrative, and practical advice, Why We Snap uncovers the biological roots of the rage response and how we can protect ourselves—and others.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Neuroscientist Fields provides insight into the seemingly inexplicable: sudden switches into violent behavior, an all-too-familiar narrative that often ends in collective tragedy. From road rage to public shootings, he explores manifestations of the human instinct to kill—which Fields views as universal and evolutionarily hardwired into our brains. This discussion, for all its relevance to contemporary society, can become unwieldy, but Fields knows when to use stories, including anecdotes from his own life, and when to rely on academic material, such as his own discipline. Even the most scientific passages are personalized and placed in a narrative context, and while his friendly and informative tone can occasionally be excessively digressive, it results in a highly readable survey. Most distinctive is Fields’s self-created mnemonic device, LIFEMORTS, an acronym for triggers to violence: life or limb; insult; family; environment; mate; order in society; resources; tribe; stopped. Recognizing these triggers, he claims, can prevent tragedy. Fields shines a thoughtful and essential light on one of the darkest aspects of human behavior. Agent: Andrew Stuart, Stuart Agency. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“An important and timely book that uses neuroscience to illustrate why society must come to terms with our evolutionary heritage.”
Science Magazine

“For those craving an action-packed account of what scientists currently know about how rage works, this book delivers.”
Scientific American MIND

"Synthesizing his own and others’ research and scores of case studies, Fields argues that many apparently inexplicable cases of violent rage are down to a clash between hard-wiring in the brain’s hypothalamus, amygdala andlimbic system, and nine rage triggers, from life-or-death situations to threats to social order... Cogent and timely."

“Neuroscientist Fields provides insight into the seemingly inexplicable… highly readable… a thoughtful and essential light on one of the darkest aspects of human behavior.”
Publishers Weekly

“Neurobiologist Fields offers a sensible, plainspoken guide to the all-too-common phenomenon of rage… [a] thoughtful and anecdotal examination… Fields’ timely exploration of sudden acts of violence is sure to inspire conversation.”

“The interplay between conscious and unconscious cognition is not unfamiliar territory, as readers of Daniel Kahneman or Malcolm Gladwell will recognize, but Fields' personal experience adds a fresh viewpoint to an intriguing subject.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A fusion of news, in-person interviews, and academic research, this book will appeal to readers of popular neuroscience and those seeking specific information on anger and rage.”
Library Journal

“R. Douglas Fields illuminates the intricate neural processes involved in the common human experience of ‘flipping our lid’ as we snap out of clear thinking and into states of rage.  By carefully documenting the brain science beneath the complex states of fury and illustrating with examples of real life stories of those who've ‘lost it’, our expert guide reveals how we can both understand the mechanisms and the triggers for such states and use this new knowledge in practical ways to minimize the potential damage of going down ‘the low road’ with ourselves and others.  This is a fine example of applied neuroscience for the benefit of our common humanity.  Bravo!”
Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of Brainstorm and Mindsight, Clinical Professor, UCLA School of Medicine, Executive Director, Mindsight Institute
“This book is a riveting journey into your brain’s most mysterious, dangerous, and possibly redemptive territory. Douglas Fields guides us into the core of rage, and offers us a blueprint for understanding—and perhaps remedying—the explosions of violence that can mar our world and our lives.”
—Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code
“Doug Fields explores the dark matter of the soul engrained in a the web of neurons in our brain. This is a superbly told investigation into the question of why we snap with urgent, useful implications for our personal lives as well as for the wider world. Everyone should know about the triggers of the rage circuit Doug Fields has defined.”
—Daniela Schiller, PhD, Neuroscientist, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai

“A superb must-read for anyone hoping to understand the common neural roots of spontaneous acts of violence, rage, and, yes, heroism.  The argument is both riveting and convincing; the implications are profound, from rethinking the relationship between violence and personal responsibility to possible ways to temper the 'snap' response.”
—Robert Burton, M.D. author of On Being Certain

Library Journal
Rage overpowers judgement, fear, and pain. Sometimes this automatic human response saves lives and other times it takes them. Fields (chief, section on nervous system development and plasticity, National Inst. of Child Health and Human Development; neuroscience and cognitive science, Univ. of Maryland, College Park) explains how the rage response is produced and whether this natural survival mechanism continues to protects humans. The author believes that understanding rage triggers is essential to controlling an extreme reaction. This book was a four-year quest on Fields's part to understand his snap response to a mugging in Barcelona. The author explores topics broadly related to neuroscience in order to help people respond better in threatening situations. VERDICT A fusion of news, in-person interviews, and academic research, this book will appeal to readers of popular neuroscience and those seeking specific information on anger and rage.—Beth Dalton, Littleton, CO
Kirkus Reviews
A neuroscientist asks, "what triggers [our] deadly switch for violence and killing?" A bizarre encounter with a pickpocket gang in Barcelona was the inspiration for this book, writes Fields (The Other Brain: From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries about the Brain Are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science, 2010, etc.), the chief of the Nervous System and Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institutes of Health. He and his daughter were on their way to attend a neuroscience meeting when a thief grabbed his wallet. The author's shockingly powerful response was instantaneous. In his mid-50s and weighing only 130 pounds, with "no martial-arts training, no military experience, no background in street fighting," he subdued the thief with a stranglehold. Looking back on the event, he wondered at the precision of his response. "Somewhere deep in my brain," he writes, "I must have been taking in this situational information unconsciously." Fields believes that his response evoked "a deeply embedded automatic life-saving reaction" that had been preprogrammed into his DNA. Throughout the book, he explores how these automatic responses are triggered. He thoroughly examines how threats to survival—to a spouse or child, to self-esteem, to defense of the tribe—can cause the brain to circumvent conscious thought processes and snap into an immediate response. In worst-case scenarios, this can lead to domestic abuse, street violence, and other anti-social behavior. On the other hand, our rapid-response system can save lives—e.g., the author's response to the pickpocket or a mother who snatches her child from danger. "Acts of heroism happen every day," writes Fields. "This selfless reflexive response is never referred to as snapping, but from a neuroscience perspective, both heroic behaviors and rage behaviors are driven by exactly the same brain circuits." The interplay between conscious and unconscious cognition is not unfamiliar territory, as readers of Daniel Kahneman or Malcolm Gladwell will recognize, but Fields' personal experience adds a fresh viewpoint to an intriguing subject.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


Snapping Violently

Rage is a short madness.

Horace, Book 1, Epistle ii, line 62

You mustn’t say things about Melanie,” he warns her.

“Who are you to tell me I mustn’t?” she snaps back, vibrating in anger. “You led me on. You made me believe you wanted to marry me!”

“Now, Scarlett, be fair,” he pleads, trying to calm her fury. “I never at any time—”

“You did! It’s true! You did.” She cuts him off. “I’ll hate you till I die!” she screams. “I can’t think of anything bad enough to call you!”

Sobbing in rage, she suddenly slaps her lover across his face. As he retreats she grasps a vase and hurls it across the room. The delicate porcelain shatters against the wall.

Later the jilted woman sobs desperately as the second man in her lovers’ triangle walks out on her: “Oh, Rhett! Rhett, Rhett! Rhett . . . Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?”

He faces her calmly and delivers these enduring words: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Gone with the Wind, the 1939 film classic based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel, captures the paradoxical moment of snapping that is familiar to us all, but inexplicable. Why smash a treasured vase? Why slap a lover across the face? The immediate aftermath brings regret and shame, and upon reflection bewilderment. The explosive impulse of destruction is driven by a powerful righteous rage, overwhelming but pointless.

Who has not lost self-control in a blind rage, smashing a dish—or worse? We all wish to believe—need to believe—that we are in control of our behaviors and actions, but the fact is that in certain instances we are not. Something unexpected in our environment can unleash an automatic and complex program for violence, destruction, and even death—all of it an unconscious pre-established program.

Rage explodes without warning. Overpowering judgment, compassion, fear, and pain, the fiery emotion serves one purpose—violence, both in words and actions. While this human response has been vital to our survival since our species evolved, rage simultaneously puts one’s life at risk. And it seems there is no escaping the rage circuit once it has been activated. So if rage is an automatic reflex, are you really in control of your fate? That flare-up with your partner or child or friend or even a complete stranger can change your life in an instant, forever.

Despite the essentially peaceful lives most of us lead most of the time, killing is programmed into the human brain. This is because, as with most animals, individuals in the natural world must be able to defend themselves and their offspring. Moreover, carnivores must kill other living creatures for food. These behaviors are hardwired in the brain, not in an area where consciousness resides but instead deep in the core of the brain where other powerful impulses and automatic life-sustaining behaviors (feeding, thirst, and sex) are programmed. Each of these behaviors, just like the complex rage behavior, is automatic once triggered. The question is, what triggers this deadly switch for violence and killing?

Late one summer night in a torrential downpour, my daughter and I threaded our way through the dark cobblestone back alleys of Paris, hungry and lost. Like most scientists, I travel the world to lecture and collaborate with other scientists, and I almost always travel alone. This night my seventeen-year-old daughter was with me. The springtime of proms, graduation ceremonies, and anxious anticipation of leaving high school behind had cleared a momentary opportunity for a father and daughter to share time together. It was wonderful seeing Kelly’s eyes open to the world. Soaking wet, we leaped over puddles and escaped into a steamy one-room restaurant. No one spoke English. Kelly applied her high school French to order from one of the three frantic middle-aged women who shared the burden of all the cooking and serving.

Suddenly in exasperation the woman jabbed at the menu, scolding Kelly. She had not ordered a glass of wine for herself. The idea that anyone would enjoy a fine dinner without the requisite glass of wine was unthinkable. For Kelly, underage for drinking alcohol in the United States, this was a revelation. Not everywhere in the world is necessarily the same as the place in which you were reared.

After Paris we traveled to Barcelona for my next lecture at an international meeting of neuroscientists. The morning before the meeting began we made a quick visit to the Gaudi cathedral. Ascending the steps out of the dingy subway station smelling of concrete dust and sweat, we emerged into the brilliant Barcelona sun. The crowd of passengers pressed upon us in a gray blur.

Suddenly I felt a sharp tug at my pant leg. As if swatting a mosquito I slapped the zippered pocket above my left knee. My wallet was gone!

My left arm shot back blindly. In a flash I clotheslined the robber as he pivoted to hand my wallet to his partner and flee down the steps. As if swinging a sledgehammer I hurled him by his neck over my left hip and slammed him belly first onto the pavement, where I flattened him to the ground and applied a head lock.

Splaying my legs for hip control like a wrestler pinning an opponent I yelled for help. Fifty-six years old, 130 pounds, with wire-rimmed glasses and graying hair, I have no martial-arts training, no military experience, no background in street fighting. Drawing on junior high school wrestling moves from forty years ago, I found myself applying an illegal choke hold. The street-smart hoodlum struggling in my arms was in his late twenties or early thirties.

“Police!” I shouted. “Call the police! I’ve got him!”

There was no reply . . . no gasps of shock from the dense crowd . . . no one was coming to my aid. Instead, from my perspective on the ground all I saw were men’s feet closing in around me in a tight circle. They were all part of the gang. Oblivious to being hunted as prey, we assumed that the crowd was the normal throng of passengers bumping and jostling through the Barcelona Metro system.

The muscled man beneath me struggled to break my grip. With his neck in the crook of my left arm I cinched with all the force my biceps could produce, cutting off blood to his brain and air to his lungs. Bending his head back I torqued his spine backward painfully, tipping his face skyward. His eyes and mouth opened wide in shock, pain, and fear. The wallet popped free as he tossed it toward his accomplice and grasped furiously at my arm to break my stranglehold.

“That’s my wallet!” I yelled.

A woman’s hand shot between the thicket of legs. Instantly I recognized it as my daughter’s. She had been cut off by the gang that had stalked and trapped us, encircling me silently like a pack of wolves. Captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team, Kelly dove through the air in an arc to deflect the disk inches from an opponent’s grasp in a full-on layout onto solid concrete. She intercepted the pass in midair and tipped the wallet into the palm of my outstretched right hand. Reading the eyes of an accomplice fixating on my BlackBerry spinning on the pavement, she lunged again and beat him to the prize.

With my wallet retrieved and realizing that I was horribly outnumbered, I released the thief and bounced onto the balls of my feet as he scurried backward on his butt like an injured crab escaping. “Crazy man!” he gasped.

Looking into the eyes of the half-dozen muscular thugs surrounding me, I tried to discern if he choked out those parting words to deflect suspicion or if he meant it as a threat.

Now what?

A massive surge of adrenaline fueled my twitching muscles and nerves to levels of raw power I had never felt before. I was now struggling not to pick up the next hoodlum squaring off with me, hoist him over my head, and hurl him into his accomplices, knocking them down the steps of the Metro station like bowling pins. It was not a question of whether I could execute the superhuman feat. I had no doubt that I could do it. Rather, I was trying not to do it, simply because this might not be my best option. At least, not yet.

Suddenly a middle-aged, well-dressed Spaniard stepped casually between me and the attackers and with flicking shooing motions of his fingers he said, “He no crazy—go.” Without breaking stride he descended the steps into the Metro station. As he passed me he smiled and said, “Bueno—good—go now.” In passing he had defused the situation to its best possible outcome: a draw. The band of robbers scattered into the Metro station like rats down a sewer, leaving my daughter and me standing there stunned, my wallet clenched in a death grip in my right hand.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. The gang pursued Kelly and me throughout the city for the next two hours. They were not after my wallet anymore. I had humiliated and beaten up a member of their gang. They wanted revenge.

We tried every trick to elude them—fleeing into tourist shops and through noisy restaurants, cutting through back alleys, abruptly crossing streets to reverse course, changing clothing, and when they got too close, leaving the sidewalk and running down the center of the boulevard, weaving through oncoming cars. At one point we stopped traffic to jump into a taxi in the middle of a three-lane boulevard, but they had cell phones and wherever we went they sent increasingly menacing tattooed thugs with steroid-bloated biceps to intercept us. As we dodged the gang of robbers, we witnessed them casually pick wallets from two more tourists. I even snapped photographs of them doing it—a stupid mistake, as it turned out, because their lookout on my side of the street caught me doing it. The unshaven goon came running up the sidewalk jabbering Russian into a cell phone and extending a video camera in an unconvincing attempt to pass as a tourist. We fled down a side street. As they closed in on us, we were forced to jump into a taxi and escape to a small town an hour away.

In the cab, my daughter asked in a tone filled with shock and disbelief, “Where did you learn to do that? I looked over and saw you swinging some guy around by the neck. I couldn’t figure out what was happening.”

I laughed in nervous relief.

A 170-euro cab fare later, we were broke but safe.

Now my daughter is convinced that my job at the National Institutes of Health is just a cover for my real job as a spy.

My daughter’s and my experience in Barcelona with the pickpocket gang was the inspiration for this book. Where, indeed, had I learned to do what I had done? How, with the lightning-quick reflexes of someone snatching a fumbled coin from the air, had I unleashed such a flurry of moves on my attacker without conscious thought? Had I contemplated the situation, I never would have attempted such a thing. No amount of money is worth being injured or killed. I could have been kicked in the head by the gang as I struggled with their comrade on the ground and left to die brain damaged and in a coma. Or they could have easily held my daughter at knifepoint and used her as ransom. I never imagined that I would or could react this way. Yet it worked. One fifty-six-year-old tourist and his daughter had defeated a gang of criminals.

This unconscious explosion of violence to protect my daughter and myself is the same behavior that is triggered inappropriately in so many everyday instances of sudden and regrettable violence. We need to understand this unconscious neural circuitry and recognize what trips it.

In the aftermath of the attack I found myself wondering: Does everyone have this latent unconscious ability for rage waiting to be unleashed, or is this relatively uncommon? Would another person react differently—rather than fight, become a helpless victim, run, or negotiate? Why? Which strategy is the best in which situation? Would I always react this way if caught unawares in similar circumstances? Whatever our response might be to sudden threats like this one, is there any way to control it? Can the inherently meek, if they exist, be taught to fight back (to overcome or ignore their meekness, as it were), or are our individual reactions to such threatening situations preprogrammed?

As a neuroscientist, I wonder how this unconscious reflex was possible. Without even seeing the robber in my peripheral vision I had snared the person by the neck and thrown him to the ground. How had my brain taken in all that information while my attention was fully occupied by the enormous challenges of negotiating my way through a strange new environment? Somewhere deep in my brain I must have been taking in this situational information unconsciously and guarding against the threat to which I was consciously oblivious. It had been a blind snatch. I did not really know who I had grabbed by the neck until the instant I saw my wallet being tossed to his fellow gang member, but the fact is, I found myself on the ground not with an eighty-year-old lady innocently walking in my blind spot: It was indeed the bad guy.

Until I found myself on concrete in combat, I had simply witnessed my violent reflexes unleash themselves. Clearly, in many dangerous situations the process of conscious thought would be too slow. As when recoiling from a hot stove, our unconscious protective reflex kicks in before we feel the burn consciously, revealing a deeply embedded automatic lifesaving reaction that through millions of years of evolutionary struggle has been preprogrammed into our DNA. But snatching your hand back from a burning-hot stove is a simple reflex. Responding appropriately to a perceived threat within a fluid social environment is far more complex—yet your life or the life of friends and family will depend on executing the proper split-second reflex for either rage or retreat. The rage reflex can unleash furious, uncontrollable anger or, as in this instance, trigger a rage of intense and purposeful violence devoid of anger. In either case the response is automatic and apparently unchecked by rational thought.

The power of rage gives a petite woman strength to lift a car off the ground to free a trapped child. It is the stuff that drives a US Marine, 180 degrees against all normal instinct, to run into a hail of bullets to save a comrade in jeopardy. But sometimes this automatic lifesaving rage reflex embedded in our brain by evolution clashes against the modern world. “I just snapped,” the remorseful man confesses tearfully after having strangled his girlfriend in a fit of rage. Rage can ignite a crowd, resulting in sudden mob violence. The triggers can be small or large, individual or collective. The results can be devastating.

We must understand the biology of how the animal instinct inside us works in order to appreciate how rage arises. We must learn to control rage if possible, and to exploit it when necessary to save our lives. How much of this propensity toward rage is genetically predetermined and how much is learned? Precisely what is it in any given situation, and in an individual’s personal history, that will trigger rage? Would I have reacted the same way to the pickpocket had I been traveling alone rather than with my daughter? Does the tendency to unleash rage reside latent in everyone, or is it only programmed into a few? How do men and women differ with respect to rage triggers? As individuals and societies we need to examine the beast within us and confront, in the context of modern society, the biological roots of rage.

Losing It

“We like it here,” the woman said. Her shaggy brown-and-white mongrel stretched its leash to sniff a tree. “There are some older couples—a lot of older couples—some families with teenage kids and some with younger-aged kids like mine.”

Her two daughters, one with bright-blue extensions woven into her curly black hair, both of them in dresses, fidgeted behind her.

“It’s very diverse ethnically and culturally,” she continued. “I like that.”

Earlier, one of the woman’s neighbors, sixty-seven-year-old Ray Alfred Young, emerged from his home. As he latched the front door of his tidy brown-brick townhome, he could not have imagined that he would not be returning.

Dappled sunlight splashed the windshield of his Toyota Corolla as he drove through the quiet streets lined with towering red oaks shading residents from the blazing July heat. Retired after thirty-seven years of service to the federal government in the Department of Labor, Young was heading to the US post office two and a half miles from his home in the Dumont Oaks neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland. Completely bald, Young had battled throat cancer, losing his teeth and part of his jaw to the disease, but he remained active in his church and community.

“He is the kind of neighbor who checked your mail when you were away and checked your house while you were on vacation,” said Mary Anne Darling, a special-education teacher who lived next door to Young for the past ten years.

“He was always very polite to me,” said Evan Schluederberg, another neighbor commenting after the bloody events.

The post office on the corner of New Hampshire Avenue always seemed busy. The line of customers often stretched nearly to the door, and indeed there was a line as Young entered. He stood waiting his turn with the rest of the afternoon crowd when he saw a man cut in line. In fact, a postal worker had directed the person away from the counter to complete his paperwork and then motioned him back.

Stunned witnesses described what happened next. Young waited in the vestibule of the post office for the fifty-eight-year-old man who he thought had cut in line. He started yelling and arguing with the man; then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a butterfly knife and began stabbing the man over and over. Young sank its four-inch blade into the man’s chest two times and then two more times into the man’s left shoulder blade. The victim fought barehanded to defend himself from the deadly blade, suffering slashes to his forearm and biceps.

Two female postal employees rushed to the fight and blasted Young with pepper spray. Young recoiled, his eyes and nose burning, before escaping outside, where he darted to his car and retrieved a baseball-bat-sized club from the trunk—then stormed back to beat the victim, who was bleeding profusely and suffering serious injury. Shocked bystanders shouted at Young, warning that police were on their way. Young retreated to his Toyota Corolla and drove off.

Police stopped the car at an intersection less than a mile from the shady streets of Dumont Oaks. Quickly the scene was surrounded by multiple police cars. Young gave up without a fight. Soon he sat on the curb in his yellow shirt and khakis, his hands cuffed behind his back, his chin sunk to his chest, and his eyes still smarting from the pepper spray while officers searched his car.

“I’ve never seen him be aggressive or volatile in any way,” said Darling after Young’s arrest for attempted murder.

“He seemed just like a standard, normal dude,” his neighbor Schluederberg reflected. No one, not even Young’s lawyer, claimed that Young was mentally ill.

“He’s as stable a citizen as you could ask for,” Young’s defense attorney, Gary Courtois, told Judge Eugene Wolfe at Young’s bond hearing. Young, dressed in a blue prison jumpsuit, appeared in Maryland District Court via closed-circuit TV. He was unable to see his brother and son seated in wooden pews behind the thick glass knee wall separating spectators from the attorneys’ oak desks. Seated at the imposing bench in his black robe, Judge Wolfe read through documents in a bright-yellow file folder. According to Montgomery County police, Young had no previous history of violence.

The judge, a scholarly-looking black man with graying hair, denied the request to reduce the $500,000 bond. Looking up at Young’s defense attorney through his silver wire-rimmed glasses he said, “I am not willing at this stage to put him back out on the street knowing what I do about this case.”

How can this violent break with reality be explained? A sixty-seven-year-old man suddenly departing from a life of civility, snapping uncontrollably in an instant and viciously attacking and attempting to murder a man who was a decade younger than him because he thought, mistakenly, that the man had cut in line. It made no sense; not even to the attacker afterward. “Maybe I should have stayed home. I’m too old for this stuff,” Young said soon after he was arrested.

We tend to ignore this subject of snapping violently not only because we have become numbed to it but because this hostile behavior is so disconcerting. On a societal and personal level, we are all too familiar with this seemingly irrational rage response. No matter where you live, the daily papers and news media are filled with similar instances where “normal” law-abiding individuals with no history of violence suddenly “snap” and attack violently. Often the rage is triggered inexplicably by the slightest provocation. There are countless horrific examples from the national news, but the incident I just described happened at my local post office, only two miles from my home. This shows just how pervasive and commonplace rage attacks are.

This behavior is so common on the highways we have a name for it: road rage. Also from my local newspaper: A thirty-two-year-old woman from the Alexandria area of Fairfax County was arrested Monday night and charged in what authorities described as a road-rage incident in which a woman was killed. The woman was charged with felony hit-and-run in the incident, in which she ran over and crushed to death a twenty-one-year-old woman after a verbal altercation broke out and matters escalated. “Never get out of your vehicle,” Officer Don Gotthardt, a county police spokesman said. The woman surrendered herself later that night at a police station.

This rage response is not exclusive to men or to women, or to the aged or young. It is inexcusable and perplexing, but not incomprehensible. These incidents of snapping in rage merely seem incomprehensible because we have become numbed to them and we avoid the subject. On a certain level we would rather dismiss snapping as pathology, but such thinking is wrong. Psychopathic homicides, which are driven by mental illness, grab attention because these acts are rare. The commonplace blind rage attacks between spouses, coworkers, and complete strangers are the cause of far more aggression and violence than that caused by the mentally ill or psychopathic killer.

Two-year-old Angelyn was on an outing with her extended family at Tysons Corner Center shopping mall in Fairfax, Virginia, on November 29, 2010. Mall surveillance cameras captured the unimaginable act of rage at this mall near my home.

“It’s chilling now, seeing it and knowing what’s going to happen,” attorney Raymond Morrogh said during closing arguments. “She was intent on completing this horrible act.”

In the footage, the family, including Angelyn’s diminutive fifty-one-year-old grandmother Carmela dela Rosa, can be seen leaving the mall and exiting across an elevated pedestrian bridge. Suddenly dela Rosa sweeps Angelyn up in her arms and throws her over the edge. Shoppers saw Angelyn hit the ground forty-four feet below.

“It looked like a jacket had fallen over the edge of the bridge,” one witness described. Another witness driving by said she saw it out of the corner of her eye and thought at first that it was a bird.

The girl’s mother and the rest of the family ran down six flights of stairs to Angelyn. Carmela dela Rosa stayed on the bridge, leaning over the edge and watching the horror she unleashed on her family unfolding below.

Kathlyn Ogdoc, dela Rosa’s daughter and Angelyn’s mother, testified at trial how the last thing she heard on the ambulance ride to the hospital was her daughter crying before the EMTs sedated her child. Angelyn died at Fairfax Hospital twelve hours later.

“She’ll never be able to go to kindergarten. I can’t teach her how to put makeup on. We can’t teach her how to drive. She won’t be able to grow up,” Angelyn’s grief-stricken mother testified at trial against her own mother.

In statements to police, dela Rosa said she threw the toddler over the edge of the walkway because she was angry at James Ogdoc, her son-in-law, for conceiving Angelyn with her nineteen-year-old daughter out of wedlock, preventing Kathlyn from meeting new people and exploring the world. That anger grew into an all-consuming rage.

The jury rejected the defense’s plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. Psychologist Dr. Stanton Samenow, who evaluated dela Rosa while she was in prison, said that the hatred she harbored for her son-in-law never subsided.

“She was basically angry at the world and her place in it. . . . She decided to take it out on the child,” prosecutor Morrogh concluded.

Samenow testified that dela Rosa, in interviews with Fairfax County police in the hours immediately after the crime, didn’t inquire once about the condition of the child. Instead she asked, “What’s going to happen to me next?” and later, “Is this going to be out in the public?”

After an anguished trial that could have no real winners, dela Rosa was convicted of first-degree murder. Judge and jury rejected the lesser charge of second-degree murder, concluding that the act had been committed with malice.

“I’m very sorry for what I’ve done. I’m sorry to James and Kat,” dela Rosa said in court, referring to her granddaughter’s parents before her sentence was delivered.

“That a grandmother would do something like this to a granddaughter is almost incomprehensible,” Judge Bruce White said before sentencing the woman to thirty-five years in prison.

It would be comforting to dismiss this tragedy as an aberration of mental illness rather than what the jury concluded it was: a violent act of fury. Morrogh observed, “It is a natural instinct to want to think she was insane when she did it because it’s easier to admit than acknowledge evil exists in ordinary families.”

“This isn’t insanity,” he said. “This is depravity.”

Human behavior, once the domain of education, religion, and psychology, is now becoming comprehensible as neurobiological science delves deeper into the circuitry of the brain. In the late 1920s, Walter Rudolf Hess, an ophthalmologist in Zurich, Switzerland, who gave up his practice to conduct brain research, surgically inserted a fine-gauge wire deep into the brain of a cat. After allowing the cat to recover from anesthesia Hess flipped a switch to energize the electrode. Sometimes this caused the cat to cock its head or twitch its muscles. Probing deep into the middle of the brain (the diencephalon), Hess found that electrical stimulation of specific spots in that area evoked changes in “autonomic” brain functions, which maintain the internal stability of the body such as heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, and respiration. While he was probing this region of the hypothalamus, the cat suddenly sprang into vicious attack mode. Its eyes dilated, its hair stood on end, its back arched, its teeth and claws were bared, and it began snarling and striking out at the nearest object.

Using this method in the 1960s, John P. Flynn and his colleagues at Yale University added one more critical element to the experiment: a rat. When Flynn activated the same spot in the hypothalamus, the docile laboratory cat subject, indifferent to the rat in its cage, suddenly became enraged as Hess had shown, but the rage was directed toward the rat, which it killed immediately. Stimulating this spot had not simply evoked a ragelike emotional state; the cat’s fury was directed toward another living creature. This was the same type of behavior triggered in sixty-seven-year-old Ray Young. Somehow the line-cutting incident at the post office tripped this circuit deep in the unconscious part of his brain. Driven by these deep-brain neurons in his hypothalamus, Young was forced into actions focused irrevocably on killing.

Flynn also found something remarkable that Hess’s experiments done without a rat in the cage would have failed to detect: If he moved the electrode very slightly to stimulate a nearby spot in the hypothalamus, the cat suddenly sprang into a quiet, stealthy attack, without exhibiting rage or anger. Instead, the cat coldly and meticulously stalked and attacked a test object or killed a prey animal placed in its cage. The cat would cease the attack, whether cool-tempered or enraged, when the investigator stopped stimulating the electrode.

Unlike cocking the head or twitching a muscle, these attacks are enormously complex behaviors, tightly focused on another animal in the environment, involving the release of many hormones, profound alterations in sensory and motor function, the initiation of complex behaviors to kill, and overwhelming the cognitive ability of the animal to any purpose other than attack. All of this somehow linked to that tiny knot of neurons at the core of the brain where conscious thought cannot penetrate: the beast within.

Misfiring Neural Circuits of Violence

Releasing the rage response to defend against attack or to obtain food in the wild makes sense, but murdering your granddaughter on an impulse to spite your son-in-law? Running over a twenty-one-year-old woman because of her annoying driving? Knifing a man to death—for the man surely would have died if the postal workers had not intervened—because he appeared to cut in line?

Such furious reactions might seem like aberrations, but these acts are epidemic in modern society. Add to these extremely violent reactions the commonplace experience of witnessing someone losing it at an airline counter or at a bar or in a car on a crowded highway, and the need to understand how the rage circuit works becomes obvious. This book offers a new understanding based on the latest research in my and others’ labs. In the following chapters we will uncover the brain circuitry responsible for the rage response and explore how these circuits are tripped and consider whether modern society inadvertently causes misfires of the rage response embedded in our brains.

However misguided my reflexive response to the pickpocket in Barcelona was, the underlying reasons that it happened are not hard to see. The loss of all our money in a foreign country would have left my daughter and me without means of obtaining food, lodging, or transportation. But the point is that the “decision” to trip this reflex was made automatically and unconsciously in a fraction of a second. It had to be so. But the snap reflex means that certain stimuli in the environment of which I was not consciously aware had tripped the circuits in my hypothalamus to compel me to risk my life in a street fight.

So too in each of the examples I’ve given thus far can we see the factors that triggered the rage responses. The grandmother’s actions, while horrible and misguided, were motivated to protect her daughter’s welfare. Road rage is understandable from the perspective of protecting one’s own territory. This urge to protect our territory is critical for life in the wild, as in modern times, but whether it is an intrusion into the space surrounding our vehicle or an airline seat tipped back into our row, the question is whether the sudden explosion of rage to physically engage in combat with the intruder is rational, or instead a misfiring of automated brain circuits of threat detection. Do sensory stimuli while driving a car trigger that violent urge irrationally because our brain evolved millions of years before man invented the wheel or middle seats on airplanes? Ray Young acted out of a motivation to maintain public order. All social animals must do so to some degree, or there is no social structure, but at some point the situation tripped a self-protective response as if he were in a mortal fight with an aggressor.

“He must have felt threatened,” Attorney Courtois told the judge at Young’s bond hearing, trying to account for how a peaceful, sane retired person could have suddenly attempted to murder a stranger in the post office.

“I was defending myself,” Young explained, giving his distorted perspective. “His wife or someone pepper-sprayed me.”

Understanding how the rage response circuit in the hypothalamus becomes activated helps explain why some cases of extreme violence occur, but it does not excuse them. Sometimes these are criminal and profoundly cruel acts, but none of the ones I’ve recounted was the result of insanity, or even the result of conscious reasoning. This explains the apparent paradox of a seemingly stable and nonviolent individual snapping suddenly and committing horrible violence.

This violence is fundamentally different from the brain circuitry underlying such crimes as assault and robbery. These and other “scheming” crimes originate in the cerebral cortex, where consciousness arises. The hypothalamic rage response is also distinct from the neurobiology underpinning the mass murders committed by someone like Jared Loughner, who gravely wounded congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson, Arizona, shopping center on January 8, 2011. Seen grinning in his mug shot, Loughner appeared mentally deranged. Adam Lanza, who sickeningly massacred schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as his own mother, was by all accounts a twisted, mentally ill person who was receiving psychiatric treatment and medications long before the attack. These are broken minds. Understanding the criminal behaviors committed by insane individuals is currently impossible, even as we endeavor to heal them. Such insanity-driven murder is not within the scope of this book.

A gruesome mass murderer in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred seventy-seven innocent students and bystanders in his far right-wing outrage over immigration, is a case of rage triggered by social conditions and politics. Psychiatrists and Norwegian courts ruled that Breivik was not insane, but rather his mass slaughter of innocents was driven by a righteous sense of rage. Indeed, Breivik’s greatest fear was that the court would judge him insane. For Breivik, the guilty verdict was a triumph, which he greeted with a smirk and a clenched-fist salute to the court. He then apologized at his sentencing for having not killed more people, but Judge Wenche Arntzen abruptly cut him off before sentencing him to prison for twenty-one years, the maximum possible under Norway’s law. This was a crime of rage.

Could it be that subconscious neural circuitry and behaviors designed for human life in the distant past are susceptible to triggering violence in everyone? Could these circuits of rage be prone to misfiring in response to stresses and encounters in modern life that did not exist when these survival mechanisms were laid down over millions of years of evolutionary struggle? I believe the answer is yes.

While it is possible to see the neurobiological origins of Ray Young’s rage response, for example, not everyone in the post office responded the way that he did to the same situation. Why? Are certain people more prone to snapping in this way? Indeed, there is evidence to support the conclusion that the suppressors and triggers of the rage response differ in different people. Both genetic factors and environmental experience contribute to how easily one reacts and which of many different types of stimuli provoke the rage response. Many forms of rage are recognized in people and in animals, including territorial aggression; dominance; and predatory, defensive, sexual, social, and disciplinary rage. Each one emerges in response to very different yet specific sets of stimuli playing against different internal patterns of brain activity in the individual that ultimately link to the hypothalamus. New research is showing that differences in genes that control certain neurotransmitters and hormones lower the threshold for aggressive behavior, reduce fear, and increase impulsivity in some people.

On the other hand, Ray Young had no prior history of violence or hostility. This must mean that rather than being a genetic predisposition, a complex set of factors in his body and stimuli in the environment combined to release the ordinary inhibitions on the deadly explosion of aggression. Could factors in Young’s recent experience or in his background have intersected with the sensory input transmitted during the unexpected occurrence of a man cutting in line so as to impinge upon the hypothalamus and trigger the rage response circuitry?

Consider some subtle details: It was not a penknife that Young drew out of his pocket. It was a butterfly knife. The weapon, originating in Asia for defense and knife fighting, has a blade concealed within a split handle, so that it can be rapidly deployed single-handedly with the flick of a wrist. A second weapon (a club) was stashed in the trunk of Young’s silver Toyota Corolla.

At the preliminary hearing the defendant, clad in prison garb, appeared in the courtroom on closed-circuit TV from the jailhouse. Young is a big man. Despite his age and his ongoing battle with cancer, Young retained his imposing 190-pound burly longshoreman’s physique. He stood behind the wooden podium calmly with his hands stacked one upon the other, fingers to wrist, palms down, and his elbows jutting out symmetrically and motionless throughout the entire proceeding. His statuesque posture evoked the Buddha in lotus position, but with palms down for strength and grounding rather than upward in reverent meditation. Young’s presence on courtroom TV appeared to be a case of bad casting in contrast to all the other defendants who preceded him. Their loose-jointed “gangster” walk and fidgety, irreverent body language on camera portrayed them as battle-tested gang members, drug pushers, and robbers in a B-grade cops-and-robbers movie. One-third of them relied on a foreign-language translator to communicate with the judge.

“He’s as stable a citizen as you could ask for,” I recalled Young’s defense attorney, Gary Courtois, telling Judge Eugene Wolfe previously. To me he did indeed seem “just like a standard, normal dude,” as his neighbor had stated.

Has the hectic pace and stress of the twenty-first century put these explosive behaviors on a hair trigger that can inadvertently discharge as a result of constant bombardment of the senses by culture, the media, feelings of anxiety, alienation, and the stresses of modern life?

The lifesaving circuits of rage engraved in our brain by evolution now clash with the transformational changes in the modern environment. Humans are an organism evolved from the open plains of Africa. These neural circuits were formed and tuned for survival in the natural world. To understand the paradoxical everyday human tragedies that fill the daily papers, you must add to this situation the availability of drugs—both legal psychotropic drugs for treating mental illness and behavioral problems, and such things as steroids for treating disease, as well as powerful street drugs that the human brain never encountered prior to the last few decades—and we see the human nervous system grappling with an internal and external environment that it was never designed to handle. Finally, add on the most dangerous component, without which such aberrations in the past would have been relatively benign behavioral oddities: the availability of dangerous new implements of destruction, including automobiles, sophisticated knives, propaganda via the Internet, and firearms that can amplify the power of an individual to levels well beyond the ability of the strongest and bravest among us to combat with bare hands. None of these current realities of human life existed during the millions of years it took to evolve the human brain.

Coded into our DNA through eons of battle for survival of the fittest, the circuits of aggression reside latent in the hypothalamus of everyone. New methods and new information are revealing how they work. Let’s take a closer look at these circuits, the biological roots of rage.


Neurocircuits of Rage

I’m enormously interested to see where neuroscience can take us in understanding these complexities of the human brain and how it works, but I do think there may be limits in terms of what science can tell us about the meaning of good and evil . . .

Francis Collins, email to author on May 21, 2015

There is a beguiling popular notion that a “reptilian brain” lies at the core of the human brain. Its cold, lizardly logic governs the most basic survival functions of life; among these are feeding, sexual behavior, and self-defense. Aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays are purportedly governed by this neural tissue, a vestige of our long-distant reptilian ancestors lurking inside us. The violent outbursts and unconscious reflex to attack or defend to the death are programmed by the automatic “doomsday” neural circuits in our “lizard brain.”

Layered on top of this primal lizard brain is purportedly an early-mammal brain. “If you imagine the lizard brain as a single-scoop ice cream cone, the way you make a mouse brain out of a lizard brain . . . [is] to put a second scoop on top of the first scoop,” writes neuroscientist David Linden in his excellent book The Accidental Mind. This second scoop of the neural ice cream cone is a more refined and complex gelato in contrast to the plain vanilla first scoop of the reptilian brain.

Superimposed on top of that second scoop is the modern primate brain. This is the superior outermost layer of neural tissue (neocortex) found in primates and to a lesser extent in other higher mammals. This cerebral mantle provides us with higher-level cognitive ability, abstraction, tool-making mastery, language, self-awareness, and the capacity to control the reptilian urges within ourselves and in our civilizations. This hot-fudge topping on the ice cream cone (cerebral cortex) is what makes us human. An essential aspect of this “triune brain” theory is that these three brains compete with one another, explaining how someone can be overtaken suddenly by irrational impulses or rage. Those with weakened “mammalian brains” can commit acts of violence and crime propelled by unchecked primitive urges.

This colorful confection, however, is simply not true. You no more have a lizard brain curled up inside your skull than you have lizard scales armoring your skin. The popular idea of the triune brain originated back in the 1960s, a period before the word “neuroscience” even existed. Our understanding of how the brain worked was abysmally primitive back when TV was just progressing from black-and-white pictures to color. The first neurobiology department in the country began at Harvard University in 1966. At that time anatomy, physiology, psychiatry, and neurology all dealt with brain function, but each was considered a different area of science. The concept that brain science could be a separate and coherent scientific discipline distinct from all others was novel. Psychiatrist Dr. Paul MacLean conceived the triune brain theory based on little more than stitching together comparative anatomy and evolution into a Frankenstein scheme.

As a psychiatrist working at Yale University in the late 1940s, Paul MacLean had become interested in the brain’s control of emotion and behavior. Like Flynn and Hess before him, MacLean used electrodes to stimulate different parts of the brain in conscious animals to induce aggression and sexual arousal. Based on these experiments he pinpointed the center of emotion in the brain as the limbic system. The limbic system is located at the center of the brain and includes the hippocampus, amygdala, and other structures. MacLean proposed that the limbic system had evolved to control the fight-or-flight response to danger and to react to emotionally pleasant and painful sensations. This is indeed one of the prime functions of the limbic system, but it also participates in several other functions.

In the 1960s MacLean proposed that an even more primitive center, the reptilian brain, secluded at the core of the human brain, controlled the most basic bodily functions such as breathing. The lizard brain, he argued, resided in what anatomists term the brain stem, which is where the brain begins to swell from the top of the spinal cord inside the skull. These functions of the brain stem were never in doubt. The anatomy of the brain stem—that is, the connections leading into and out of it—and the immediate lethal result of damaging it, revealed its function vividly. But it was new to refer to this part of the human brain as the brain of a lizard.

MacLean proposed that the outermost layer of the brain, the neocortex, was the crowning achievement of evolution and thereby responsible for reasoning and all that is uniquely human. This is not a matter of scientific debate, but the idea that the human brain was formed by evolutionary accretion, beginning not with fish or amphibians but with the age of reptiles, bypassing birds, skipping to mammals, and then ascending to nonhuman primates and humans was a novel perspective. The human brain and mind, according to MacLean’s view, were revealed much like layers of past civilizations uncovered in an archeological dig.

To neuroscientists the triune brain was nothing more than an attempt to conceptualize, simplify, and popularize some general aspects about the brain’s neuroanatomical framework, but nonscientific audiences and the media latched on to the concept of the triune brain as though it were a neurological truth, a Rosetta stone to understanding human behavior and emotion in terms of neural circuitry. Never mind that popularizers of the triune brain frequently managed to confuse what the three brain parts even were, most often referring to the “second brain layer” emotional limbic system in the human brain as the reptilian brain (brain stem) at the brain’s core that actually controls breathing and other automatic bodily functions. The pervasive error is seductive, because raging dinosaurs and angry crocodiles snapping into vicious attack are compelling allegorical images for primitive human emotions unleashed.

Still, the public and the media latched on to the concept, and the pseudoscientific assertion of the triune brain has entered into common usage and suffused our culture.

From Dexter, a TV series about a serial killer:

DEB: How do you know he’ll kill again?

DEXTER: An alarm is going off inside my lizard brain.

“The greatest language barrier,” MacLean wrote in a New York Times article in 1971, “lies between man and his animal brains; the neural machinery does not exist for intercommunication. . . .”

Nothing could be further from reality. But it is easy to see how this mistake arises from the dramatic and complex aggressive behaviors that can be triggered by using an electrode to stimulate an appropriate spot in the brain. The problem here is that the question motivating the brain-stimulation experiments is itself faulty. A search made by probing electrodes into brain tissue carries a hidden assumption that there is such a cluster of neurons somewhere inside the brain that can overrule free will and take command of primitive human behaviors and emotions. But the fact that rage can be triggered by stimulating a particular spot in the brain does not necessarily lead to this conclusion any more than concluding that the power that propels an automobile engine comes from its electric battery. Although you can launch the complex systems of the automobile engine into action by closing the circuit on the battery, you would be mistaken to conclude that the battery itself provides the automobile with the force to move. Delivering an electrical shock to a particular spot in the brain may simply tap into circuitry in a complex network that can span large areas of the brain that affect multiple systems necessary for the behavior.

The human brain is a unified, highly interconnected, complex system. It is distinct in countless ways from the brain of any other animal, just as the brain of each species has evolved independently through its own line of ancestry. New techniques and modern thinking recognize that brain function typically involves widespread communication through circuits spanning many different neural systems and regions of the brain. Some vital aspects of this circuitry may be more heavily concentrated in particular spots in the brain, but this does not necessarily mean that a particular brain region is “responsible” for generating the behavior that is evoked by stimulating it. As cognitive tasks become more complex, more areas of the brain become linked into operation to produce the behavior. In contrast to the lizard brain explanation for human rage, aggression, and defense, the reality is a bit more complicated, and more interesting.

Losing the Lizard Tale

When the sneaky pickpocket’s fingers brushed my leg in Barcelona, an electrical signal shot up my nerves to my lizard brain and it instantly sprang into action to attack the threat. The signals never reached the mammalian chocolate-fudge syrup cortex of my ice-cream sundae brain, so the response was entirely automatic and unconscious.


The nerve endings in my leg are not wired directly to my lizard brain in such a way that, much like laboratory electrodes stimulating the hypothalamus of a cat, the touch of my leg triggered the lightning-fast jujitsu moves that enabled me to ensnare the bandit by his head and throw him to the ground before any signals had reached my conscious awareness in the hot-fudge sundae of my cerebral cortex. No. A quick look at the wiring diagram of the human nervous system shows that nerve endings in the skin connect to the spinal cord, not to the hypothalamus.

You’ve no doubt heard of the fight-or-flight response, that adrenaline rush that boosts heart rate and sets muscles twitching to prepare you to run for your life or fight to the death. Indeed, this physiological response was launched in my body as well as in my daughter’s during my fight with the pickpockets and during our subsequent chase through the Catalonian city. The enormous strength that infused my body when I fought the urge to pick up the leader of the gang and hurl him into his accomplices flowed directly from this lifesaving physiological response. The fight-or-flight response gave us the strength and mental sharpness to escape our pursuers with ceaseless energy during the two hours we eluded the gang hunting us down like prey, and it gave us heightened mental power and intense focus to outwit them, but the fight-or-flight response cannot explain what triggered my throwing the robber to the ground in a split second. In the milliseconds from the time I felt a tug at my pocket, I had grabbed him by his neck. The fight-or-flight response is a hormonal response, driven by an injection into the bloodstream of adrenaline (epinephrine), which is secreted from the adrenal glands attached to the kidneys. The power of adrenaline that is released in a life-threatening situation is transformative, elevating the body and mind to unparalleled levels of performance, but any process that is initiated by a substance injected into the bloodstream is far too slow to explain how I had reacted.

Are the nerve endings in my leg endowed with the ability to discern the light touch of a pickpocket’s fingers as a personal attack requiring an immediate violent protective response? How could nerve endings in my skin possibly be equipped with the logic and wisdom to decide to launch an attack on a villain that could potentially risk my life in combat in a Barcelona street fight? Clearly the lizard-brain tale of how humans react in rage is fantasy.

So what did happen? And what happens inside the minds of those overtaken by violent criminal attacks when afterward the bloody perpetrator offers the bewildering, pitiful explanation: “I just snapped”?

Toward the New Neuroanatomy

To begin to understand what happened to me in Barcelona and to countless other people every day, you need to leave the outdated notions of the 1940s–60s behind and enter the twenty-first century of neuroscience. Innovative techniques are uncovering a wealth of information and understanding, little of which has reached the public or even college textbooks, let alone courts of law. In preparation for this new research in later chapters, a basic foundation in neuroanatomy will be helpful.

If you are already familiar with the anatomy of the human brain, this section can be skipped entirely. Neurosurgeons, for example, will have no problem understanding descriptions of brain anatomy as we consider the new research on how the brain detects and responds to threat. The names for all the anatomical structures (usually in Latin) will roll off their tongue with ease, but for others the strange names, such as precentral gyrus, insula, and parahippocampal gyrus, are tongue twisters—as meaningless as the names of villages and cities in an unfamiliar foreign country. As with learning any language or reading a map, meaning develops with familiarity and usage as information, interrelationships, and associations with various names and places accumulate. But there are shortcuts.

Think of a map of the human cerebral cortex (the surface of the brain) as if it were a map of the United States. Imagine looking at your brain in profile, as if viewed through your skull by someone standing on your left side. Now envision sketching out your brain in profile as a simple two-dimensional map. The front of the brain would be on the left (west), and the back of your brain would be on the right (east).

Different spots in the brain are specialized for different functions, just as New York City is the financial center of the country and Hollywood is the center of movie production. So it is with the brain. The visual cortex, which would be concentrated around New York City (the back of the brain), is the brain center where visual information is processed. Input from the eyes is relayed through a series of connections to this area.

Keep in mind that much the way New York City is, at least to many, both the literary and financial center of the country, individual brain regions can and often do participate in processing different kinds of information and controlling behaviors for more than one distinct function.

The prefrontal cortex, which would be located near San Francisco (the front of the brain), controls higher-level cognitive functions such as attention, decision-making, and other “executive” functions that require integrating multiple kinds of sensory input and various types of information from many other brain regions.

Just as New York City is the financial center of the United States, what makes it so is the broad network of connections it has to other parts of the country. Wall Street cannot function in isolation, and the same is true of the brain. Different regions of the brain are specialized for different functions, but the pattern of connections with other brain regions is what makes each brain center work as part of a system. The brain’s anatomy must be viewed as a schematic, just like an electronic circuit diagram or a road map.

Thus, there are names for major “roads” through the brain as well as “cities.” (Cities in this analogy are concentrations of neurons, and roads are the connections between them over which electrical impulses are sent.) It is important to keep in mind when interpreting experiments on the brain that the operation of the New York Stock Exchange can be disrupted either by a local problem in New York City or by a break in the network of connections between Wall Street and financial centers around the country. Roadways in the brain are called tracts. These are bundles of nerve fibers (axons) connecting groups of neurons across distant regions of the brain.

Brain tissue is not homogenous like putty; it is filled with lumps and holes and layers of cells in a characteristic anatomical arrangement. Tight clusters of neurons are called nuclei; for example, the nucleus accumbens, an important relay point in the brain’s reward circuit, gives us the sensation of pleasure and achievement. The surface of the human brain is highly wrinkled and folded, a consequence of the great expansion in surface area of the human cerebral cortex over the course of our evolution. A hill between two furrows on the cerebral cortex is called a gyrus, and most of them are named, just as hills and valleys have names on a topographic map.

Oftentimes it is useful to refer to a larger region of a geographical area rather than individual cities—for example, the West Coast, or the Deep South. The geographical regions have distinct characteristics because of their local features and their relationships with other parts of the country. The Pacific Northwest is rainy; the Deep South is humid; there are “grain belts” and “rust belts” and politically defined “red” and “blue” regions; all of them extremely useful in discussing and understanding the country and how it operates. Neuroanatomy is the same, and the concept of different brain regions is no more complicated than that. For example, the occipital lobe of the brain (Latin for “back of the head”), would be the region east of the Mississippi. The temporal region would be located around Texas and New Mexico. I’d previously mentioned the function the occipital region is noted for—vision. The temporal region is important for memory and auditory processing.

As you might expect, there are strong networks of connections from the temporal lobe to the prefrontal cortex to draw upon information stored in memory to inform the higher-level executive functions carried out in the frontal lobes. Just as in most transportation and information systems, the connections between regions typically go in both directions. Consider, for example, that a memory must become associated with other memories and contain multiple sensory modalities (sights, smells, sounds, emotions). These must become blended together to give any memory its context and meaning. It is information returning from the prefrontal cortex to the temporal lobe, and in particular to the hippocampus, that ties all of these elements together to make a rich memory with context, sequence, and layers of meaning. For example, your memory of your mother’s face is not a static snapshot; it is a multifaceted concept with rich meaning and emotional significance. The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus working together make this possible.

Of course, this geographical analogy has its limitations. The brain is a three-dimensional structure and it is a “paired” organ with symmetrical left and right halves. Regions deep inside the brain that connect to the cerebral cortex are important, as are connections between the left and right brain hemispheres, but we can build on this foundation gradually rather than try to master brain anatomy all at once. The description thus far has also left out the “little brain” or cerebellum, which is a multi-lobed structure situated at the back of the brain like a woman’s hair bun. The cerebellum is important for coordination of movement and many other functions, to which we will soon return.

An important concept for the purposes of understanding why we snap is that consciousness arises from neuronal activity in the cerebral cortex. We lose consciousness if electrical activity in large areas of the cortex is suppressed or altered: during deep sleep, when the cortex fires in slow synchronous oscillations (waves); during epileptic seizures, when electrical activity in the cortex fires erratically in high-frequency waves and discharges; and while in a coma or following anesthesia, when electrical activity in the cerebral cortex is greatly suppressed.

The rest of the brain beneath the cerebral cortex operates under the radar of our awareness, as the hypothalamus does in controlling automatic bodily functions necessary for survival. Unless operations in the deep brain send some output to the cerebral cortex, we have no conscious awareness of their operation. Many emotions arise from signals sent to the cortex from the deep structures in the brain that control bodily function automatically. Hunger results when neurons unconsciously monitoring blood-sugar levels detect a drop below the optimal range, then send an alert to the cerebral cortex in the form of a strong urge to eat something. Similarly, thirst is the conscious sensation generated by deep brain structures (in the hypothalamus) that monitor the body’s water content. More pertinent to the subject here, fear, anger, craving, and the pleasure of reward all involve unconscious information processing in deep brain structures, such as the amygdala and limbic system, sending their output to the cerebral cortex.

The old saw that we use only 10 percent of our brain overlooks how much of the brain is at work below our conscious awareness. Complex motor skills—for example, typing on a keyboard, riding a bike, driving a golf ball—all take place unconsciously. Although the motions of our voluntary muscles (for example those in our limbs) are under conscious control, skilled performance in most motor tasks could not be coordinated consciously, because conscious control is too slow. This is why it takes effort and time to learn to ride a bike, drive a car, play a guitar, or type on a keyboard. When the movements required for these tasks were new to you and you had to evoke each precisely placed and timed movement by conscious control, your performance was awkward and very slow. Over time, those movements became automated and unconscious. This involved encoding the motor programs to execute the skill in deep brain regions and non-cortical regions. The cerebellum and deep brain region called the striatum are where our learned motor skills are stored and executed. Usually these motor programs are set into motion under conscious control, but not always, as we have already seen. Control of behavior and unconscious brain functions by the prefrontal cerebral cortex is termed “top-down” control by cognitive neurobiologists. Control of function and behavior by information from the unconscious brain to the cerebral cortex is termed “bottom-up.” In threat detection and snapping in rage, both top-down and bottom-up control are involved.

Another important concept in appreciating how the cerebral cortex operates is that different sensory inputs target different specific regions of the cortex. As mentioned, vision is processed in the occipital region (New York) and sound in the temporal region (Texas/New Mexico). However, vision, hearing, and all other sensory perceptions are very complex processes. To see, you must be able to recognize light and contrast, shapes, colors, 3-D space, and movement, and then attach significance and meaning to the objects to form a comprehensible scene. Patterns of ink on paper must eventually evoke meaning, memories, and emotions in order for you to read them. To accomplish this, information has to be processed in one module of the cerebral cortex for one purpose (visualizing a letter, in the case of reading), and then the output of that information processing is sent to a different cortical module, which operates on this input to produce a more complex analysis (for example, where in the word the letter appears determines its sound and the word’s meaning, and this information is fed into higher-level brain modules for understanding the significance of the sentence and plot of the story).

As a rule, information processing of sensory input gets more complex as information is relayed to regions toward the front of the cerebral cortex. Here the complex information from many different senses comes together for higher-level analysis. Referencing back to our map analogy of the cerebral cortex, information processing flows in increasing complexity from the East Coast (the back of your head) to the West Coast (the front of your head).

Remember that these connections are typically two-way highways, with information echoing back from “higher” to “lower” cortical modules. Interestingly, consciousness is believed to arise from the recurrent interactions flowing back and forth among cortical regions. Consciousness, then, is only an echo of what has already occurred without any awareness—and this is the key to understanding threat detection and why we snap. Subliminal input, for example, is information that is presented too rapidly to provoke any conscious awareness. We are constantly taking in subliminal information about our environment, and this dictates not only what we perceive but how we respond.

That is a first course in what is a feast of new information on the neurobiology of rage and aggression gained from new methods of research and discoveries made in only the last few years. These discoveries include astonishing new developments in how to surgically control the circuits of rage. But let’s look first at some of the history of interventions in the brain’s operation.

The infamous prefrontal lobotomy surgery developed by Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, who received the Nobel Prize in 1949 for his work, pacified the most violent psychiatric patients into docile beings (with sometimes awful side effects). The excessive use of this surgery, including its use to control aggressive behavior in children and adolescents by American neurologist Walter Freeman and his followers in the 1950s, put an end to the practice, but other psychosurgeries, for example cingulotomy, replaced it. This brain surgery is the removal of the cingulum, which is the highway of nerve fibers connecting the cerebral cortex to the limbic system deep in the brain. The surgery was developed by neurosurgeons Eldon Foltz, Lowell White, and Thomas Ballantine. Severing connections in the cingulum interrupts circuits in the rage response, relieving severe panic disorders and other psychiatric conditions that cannot be treated successfully by other measures. These surgeries could be quite effective and without serious side effects in many cases, but by the 1980s most neurosurgeons had abandoned psychosurgery. The social pressure against it and legal repercussions when things went wrong were too much to bear.

Brain stimulation became a fashionable alternative to psychosurgery. The pioneering brain-stimulation research of Walter Rudolf Hess in cats had only been the beginning. Many researchers pursued the stimulation approach to understand rage and aggression, most notably the celebrated Spanish doctor José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado. Delgado attracted something of a cult following among science-fiction enthusiasts and alarmed some members of the public by the frightening prospect of “mind control” through radio-activated brain stimulation. Delgado is famously remembered for a dramatic demonstration in the bullring, where he used a radio-controlled device rather than a muleta (red cape) to control the raging animal and save himself from being gored to death. He brought the charging bull to a halt with the flick of a switch, delivering a shock to a specific spot in the toro’s brain. Delgado had devoted his scientific career from the 1950s to the 1970s to understanding brain circuitry through an experimental approach using electrical stimulation of the brain. The circuits he activated in the hypothalamus, amygdala, and limbic system are now understood as circuits involved in aggression and rage. By stimulating the appropriate spot he could turn a cat into a hissing and clawing predator or a stealthy, stalking killer or an antisocial bully prowling its cage looking for fights with subordinate animals. Stimulating the lateral hypothalamus could even make the enraged cat attack the friendly experimenter if he approached the cage. The parallels to human behavior were, and remain, clear. Delgado found that deep-brain stimulation in monkeys could elicit complex and purposeful attack behaviors but that these responses were influenced by the animal’s gender, sexual interactions, and social dominance within the colony.

Today, transcranial stimulation can be used on humans to stimulate or inhibit neural activity in targeted spots in the brain without the need of implanting electrodes. A powerful electromagnetic pulse can be delivered through the skull and focused on a targeted region inside the brain. This technique, sometimes coupled with scans of the brain using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), is revealing answers to mysteries about how the unconscious brain detects threats, responds in fear, and motivates behavior. Together these experiments show that rage and aggression are not the product of specific neurons in particular spots in the brain; these complex behaviors are dependent on neural activity sweeping through vast areas of the brain—the human brain, not some embedded lizard brain.

So because these circuits that operate beneath the level of conscious awareness are complicated, that complexity might suggest they are not easy to manipulate or trigger. We tend to expect nuanced responses from such a sophisticated mechanism. Yet the most profoundly alarming thing about the rage response is that something in our environment can instantly wrench us from whatever we may be doing and set us on a path to violence. A simple, direct, and immediate response. But what are the triggers of rage in our environment? Are they so rare, so complex?


What Are the Triggers?

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Widely attributed to Marie Curie

What is so baffling about suddenly “losing it” is that the eruption of anger and destruction is sometimes triggered by the slightest provocation. Ferocious anger erupts without forethought, unleashed automatically before or beyond the power of your rational mind can act to keep it in check. Sometimes the violent behavior is dangerous or even life-threatening. The aftermath is often regret and bewilderment.

The outcome of snapping in rage is often blatantly counterproductive: a broken dish now useless. One’s most cherished china or highly prized automobile can be sacrificed in a fit of purposeless rage, and sometimes it is not an inanimate object that is demolished but rather a relationship or a person. In the worst cases the results are cruel, tragic, or criminal. How does one explain shaken-baby syndrome, for example? With the perspective of hindsight, a fit of rage is likely to be seen as senseless by the person committing the act. Ray Young in the post office attack, Carmela dela Rosa throwing her granddaughter to her death, and the woman mentioned in chapter 1 who ran over another driver in a fit of rage all regretted their horrific violent actions shortly afterward. Some, such as Ray Young, went to prison apologizing for what he had done and still grappling to understand it, completely mystified about what had happened “to him.”

Such furious reactions can be conveniently dismissed as aberrations of flawed individuals, but these acts are epidemic in modern society. Consider the case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee dubbed “Blade Runner” who competed in track using carbon fiber prosthetic legs against able-bodied athletes in the 2012 Olympics. His rival and winner of the 400m championship, Kirani James of Grenada, traded numbers from his own jersey with Pistorius immediately after the race and embraced him. Every other member of the field joined in embracing Pistorius at the finish line in a public and powerful display of respect and admiration. Pistorius was beloved the world over as an inspiration. This all changed in a flash and soon he was on trial for murder. Did he shoot his beautiful girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp with a spray of bullets in a fit of rage or by mistake? The fact that this question can be raised at all reveals the universal implicit understanding that this beastly propensity toward rage is deeply ingrained in human nature, and that seemingly anyone can suffer a rage attack with a horribly remorseful outcome.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales walked out of his army outpost in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan in the middle of the night and massacred innocent civilians. After shooting indiscriminately with an M4 rifle twenty-two men, women, and children—most of them in their homes—and then setting their bodies on fire, Bales was later as perplexed by his behavior as anyone. This model soldier, athlete, and past president of his high school class wept with sincere apology and regret at trial, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment after pleading guilty to the gruesome mass murder. Father of two, Bales apologized to the relatives of his victims at his trial, but he could not explain why he committed the killings. “I am truly, truly sorry to all the people whose family members I have taken away,” he said. “I have murdered their families.”

NFL star Marc Edwards, a childhood friend of Bales, played football with him on their high school team, and he later went on to earn a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots. Testifying on the stand as a character witness, Edwards said that he could not fathom how the young man he knew could become the killer of women and children in Afghanistan. “It didn’t make any sense to me,” he said.

Bales’s commander in Iraq said that he was a great leader and “stood out and had a real positive attitude.”

Bob Durham, who lived next door to Bales growing up in Nebraska, said Bales was like another member of the family. Durham broke down in tears on the stand describing Bales’s compassion and how, as a teenager, Bales helped him care for his developmentally disabled son.

Haji Naim, an elder in one of the two small villages Bales attacked, flew several thousand miles to appear in person in court and describe the murderous crimes. “This bastard stood right in front of me,” Naim said. “I wanted to ask him, what did I do? And he shot me [in the face].”

Afghan witnesses testified that Bales ignored their pleas for mercy, including boys and girls who shouted, “We are children!”

In considering mitigating circumstances that might aid his defense and help us understand the horror, the defense originally considered the possibility of PTSD, substance abuse, and potential brain trauma from repeated concussions. In the end, all of these “rational” explanations were dismissed and none of them were introduced at trial in Sergeant Bales’s defense. Explaining what had happened that night, defense attorney John Henry Browne concluded, “I don’t think anybody with a rational mind could say Bob Bales didn’t snap.”

Anyone immediately comprehends the explanation of “snapping” and committing a terrible rage attack, but this “explanation” provides no understanding at all. What are the mechanisms driving this explosive human behavior that causes a person to suddenly lose control in a brutal attack of violent rage?

These are extreme examples, and the Bales case is multilayered, but nearly all of us have lost it in a burst of rage triggered by some slight provocation, leaving us perplexed and regretful. Snapping can erupt in many ways: an angry outburst of profanity, banging a fist on the table, scolding a child out of proportion to the incident provoking the anger, or slamming a door in disgust. Even Jesus Christ snapped in a fit of rage when he saw the moneychangers desecrating his house of worship. Completely out of character, the man of peace violently upended the merchants’ tables and chairs, exclaiming, “My house shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!” (Matthew 21:13 KJV). Jesus grabbed some cords and physically whipped the moneychangers out of the temple (John 2:13–15 NIV). Sure, he had good cause, but ideally he might have gone about it another way and still achieved his worthy objective. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20 ESV). Sometimes we get angry for good reason. Other times, anger gets us.

Road rage is probably the most easily relatable example of “snapping” in this way. Some 30 percent of US drivers admit to experiencing road rage, but Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, says that he believes that everyone experiences it. Road rage ranges from belligerent horn honking, verbally assaulting another driver, and delivering insults with obscene hand gestures to aggressive high-speed vehicular jousting intended to induce a wreck or a collision by slamming on brakes, cutting lanes, running the other car off the road, pursuing another vehicle to threaten the driver, and, in the extreme, pulling a gun and just shooting the other driver.

What precipitates such sudden rage on the road? Frustration and anger accompany the actions, but they are not the reason for the violent behavior. This is why a “Sunday school” moralistic approach to preventing rage is so ineffectual. It is not the emotion itself that causes the behavior, so efforts directed at suppressing the emotions can be futile. Sure, stay calm, don’t lose your temper, love one another, treat everyone as you would like to be treated . . . perfectly rational and laudable principles of behavior, but rage does not erupt from the rational mind.

Dismissing rage attacks as the product of morally or mentally defective individuals is contrary to the preponderance of evidence, the frequency of the attacks, and the broad spectrum of people, some just like you, who experience them.

If attempting to understand and control the rage response by focusing on suppressing anger and frustration is ineffectual, what approach will bring insight? The emotions of anger and frustration, like hunger, fear, or sleepiness, are indeed powerful drivers of human behavior, but to understand and modify the behaviors it is necessary to identify why one is hungry, sleepy, angry, or frustrated. If we understand why these emotions erupt in specific situations, we can more readily recognize what is happening in ourselves and others and see the rage response for what it is—a deeply ingrained biological process, critical to our survival, that is entirely automated but can be influenced by the rational, conscious mind. Again, these impulses to undertake life-threatening violent action were once absolutely necessary for our survival. So too are the emotions of anger and frustration. It makes perfect sense that human beings, just as other animals, have these hardwired capabilities programmed in our unconscious mind. The conscious mind acts far too slowly when confronted by sudden danger or other situations where violent action is the necessary response.

Modern life is so alien to the environment and lifestyle human beings experienced in our distant past when our neural circuits evolved and were sharpened. The rage response equipped our ancestors to cope with survival in a threatening environment. But when these protective circuits misfire in modern society, irrational attacks on vehicles are made that were in some sense intended for mastodons. One of the most memorable scenes from the BBC television show Fawlty Towers has John Cleese in the role of Basil Fawlty going berserk and beating his uncooperative car with a tree branch, yelling, “I’m going to give you a damn good thrashing!”

If the trigger for a violent act is apparent and the violent reaction unleashed is obviously necessary for biological survival, the action will be seen as justified. In such cases the behavior is not identified as a rage response or “snapping,” it’s considered quick thinking. What makes road rage and other cases of rage attacks so perplexing is that the trigger is often hidden, and it can remain elusive even long after the act.

Consider the case of Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old shot to death in February 2012 by George Zimmerman, who was patrolling his neighborhood with a handgun in search of potential vandals and robbers. What made deliberation so difficult for the jury was the trigger for the action. If Zimmerman’s actions were triggered in response to actions taken by Martin that placed Zimmerman’s life at risk in a mortal battle, a jury of Zimmerman’s peers would accept the action and the killing as regrettable but not criminal. On the other hand, if Zimmerman had pursued Martin and provoked the altercation, Martin would be judged as victim and Zimmerman the criminal. The question of whether the jury got it right in this difficult case we can set aside; the point is that the behavior itself is not at issue. What is at issue in characterizing a behavior as a sudden rage response or not is the specific trigger that unleashed that behavior.

The triggers can be very subtle. Consider that road rage erupts frequently even in professional racecar drivers. This seems peculiar because the things that set off road rage on the highways—cutting lanes, overtaking another driver, impeding the advance of a faster car trailing you—are the norm, the nuts and bolts of racing. Yet a professional racecar driver can be seen throwing off his helmet in a fit of anger, storming over to another car, and going fisticuffs with the driver who spun out in front of him, ruining his chances of winning.

“I remember one race in particular,” a professional racecar driver told me in relating a specific instance of road rage in competition:

My career had gone into the Dumpster. My credibility had been questioned. I was racing in a smaller league. I would be so angry at times when these other competitors weren’t doing what I thought they should be doing. My frustration with having to be back in that arena—the lesser arena—and that guy . . .

This one time it was night. We were doing a twenty-four-hour race and I had passed him. I think he came out of the pits and I was clearly faster, but maybe he was fresh and full of it, but I just could not shake him. I passed him and he just would not leave me alone and I just wanted to be in the rhythm. It was at night and I was in a good rhythm and running hard and this guy just wouldn’t let it go.

I remember myself just getting madder and madder and I think ultimately I pulled away from him but you know it took a long time. I’m thinking, I’m so much better than this guy and why is this guy . . . ?

Circumstances beyond present events on the road were compounding the situation. The driver who spoke to me had suffered a serious accident in competition with the best drivers in the United States and Europe, and the accident had been caused by a mechanical failure. Such a failure in the machine one trusts their life to, beyond one’s ability to prevent, will shake anyone’s confidence. At this elite level of racing where every competitor is pushing to the limit to win, even a fraction of a second’s hesitation or sliver of doubt may allow another person to pass. “It’s a hard thing to overcome. In time you overcome it,” he said, but the accident was still fresh. Moreover, he was dealing with health issues and physical pain, even some personality conflicts among his crew.

“I remember being frustrated with the world. I was falling back.”

I asked him if his road rage in this instance enabled him to increase his lead on the other driver. “Yeah, I think so, but it took its toll and I had an accident after that. It is embarrassing to admit, but it is true.”

Sound familiar?

The important point here is to identify what triggered the rage response and appreciate an important component in this volatile mix: a person’s internal state and external stresses change the threshold at which the trigger is tripped. The driver continued:

A lot of these times when you are in the middle of the event [road rage] it is too late. If you stood a hundred feet above and you looked down on yourself and you say, “Really? You are actually gonna pull a gun and shoot somebody because they got too close to you with their car?” I mean, there’s way more going on here. That’s not what made you mad. You are already flipped-out.

The whole world was unraveling and there wasn’t a damn thing—despite what felt like heroic efforts—it was just going to unravel. The cognizant, conscious mind when it is working correctly would go, “This one race is not a make-or-break thing. What is make-or-break is if you have another accident.” The cognizant mind would say, “Fix this problem. Stop, fix this problem.” It is a very difficult thing to admit.

If I had the kind of maturity I have now, I would have sought help. The smart thing would have been—“Like, OK, you’ve got to rehabilitate. You’ve got to get yourself one hundred percent.” But what I did is I went racing because I could. I hurt [after the injury], but I could get around . . . it was ridiculous.

It is interesting, in this respect, to recall how Ray Young, who was convicted of knifing a person for apparently cutting in line at the post office, was battling cancer. Similarly, my pickpocketing incident in Barcelona happened while my daughter and I were dealing with some chronic stresses, which I will describe later. But for now, let us focus on the immediate nine triggers.

The Nine Triggers

It would appear from the daily headlines that countless situations can provoke violent, often deadly, rage, making it impossible to know how such varied tragic events get triggered: “Man Shoots Girlfriend in Head, Then Kills Self in Southwest Houston,” “Disgruntled Employee Goes on Deadly Shooting Rampage at Lumber Company,” “Alleged Car Thieves Killed by Irate Mob,” “Texas Man Shoots Wife Dead and Wounds Her Lover after Catching Them in Bed,” “Mother Shoots, Kills Son’s Armed Attacker,” “Barroom Brawl Erupts over Insult” . . . there is no end to the headlines. They fill the daily newspapers and broadcast media. Similar altercations that do not make the news keep law enforcement officers busy. But it is not the case that these rage attacks are set off by so many different situations that they are incomprehensible. Setting aside cases of pathology, the normal human brain will not engage in violent behavior without very specific provocation. I propose that nearly all of the array of possible provocations can be reduced to only nine specific triggers.

These triggers of rage can be remembered by using this mnemonic: LIFEMORTS (“life/deaths”; “deaths,” in this case, in French). The triggers are listed briefly here and then analyzed in greater depth in chapter 6. The triggers could be lumped together and split apart in several ways, just as the infinite variety of colors can be reduced to only nine basic colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, black, and white) for the purposes of recognizing and categorizing. For the important purpose of being able to quickly identify the trigger in any provocative situation, I have collected these provocations of rage into nine major categories that can be recalled quickly with this LIFEMORTS mnemonic. Knowing this mnemonic can change your life. In a dangerous situation, it could save it.

If you learn to recognize these triggers you can understand why a person snapped in a specific situation. No matter how misguided the response might have been, it will no longer be a mystery beyond comprehension. If you can recognize which of these triggers is igniting your sudden rise in anger or frustration, you can quickly disarm the rage response. Sometimes it is fully appropriate to unleash “the beast within,” because fundamentally all of these triggers exist to release violent behavior to save your life. The trick is to rapidly identify the trigger or triggers in a fluid situation, and ask yourself if this is indeed a potentially life-or-death situation or whether the trigger designed for life in the jungle misfired in the modern world. When encountering potential rage in others, the ability to recognize the triggers will help you in understanding and reacting to it by avoiding inflaming the situation, and possibly defusing it. A lot of things can make a person angry, but if you perceive that the source of a person’s sudden anger springs from one of the LIFEMORTS triggers, you will instantly recognize that you are in a potentially violent, even deadly, situation.

Life-or-limb. Almost anyone, and most animals, will defend themselves in what is perceived as a life-or-death attack. If an individual is about to die—or merely suffer serious injury—fighting back immediately and vigorously makes perfect sense from a biological perspective. There is nothing left to lose if your life is truly on the line.

Insult. Insults will easily provoke a rage response. Perceived insults often precipitate barroom brawls. They underlie family feuds, and in the not-so-distant past insult instigated duels to the death between gentlemen. The reason for this can be illuminated by extrapolating insults between people to a broader biological perspective.

In the animal world, violent interactions are one of the most common ways of establishing dominance. Among many social species this violence can become standardized, such as head-butting between bighorn sheep or bloody battles between male elephant seals. Such battles can result in serious injury or death. The use of violence to establish dominance is widespread throughout the animal kingdom, from fish to chimps; even social invertebrates, such as insects and marine snails (the keyhole limpet, a few peaceful-looking inches in length!), use physical violence to establish dominance over other members of the species. So deeply ingrained is the quick use of violence to establish dominance and the willingness to snap into a deadly attack, the behavior persists even in domesticated dogs encountering an unfamiliar dog, and it persists in us. Verbal insults are the human equivalent of head-butting—a means of challenge and establishing dominance. Bear in mind that it is the perception of insult that triggers the rage, even if the action was not intended as an insult. A hardworking employee may feel insulted by being skipped over for a promotion. . . .

Family. Animals will protect their offspring and family members against attack or other threat. Evolutionary success is determined by passing on an individual’s genes to the next generation. Protecting offspring, and even siblings and parents who closely share your genes, increases the odds that your genes will be passed on. We see this in a mother bear protecting her cub or when people are killed when they come between an adult moose and her calf. What father or mother would not protect and willingly sacrifice their own life for their children? This is one of the most basic of all instincts in animals as well as people.

Environment. Most animals will protect their own environment, their territory and home. The reasons are clear: home and territory provide the basic necessity for survival. Many social animals—cats, dogs, birds of prey, and people—are fiercely territorial. They establish and patrol the borders of their territory relentlessly. The concept of private property, signs that say INTRUDERS WILL BE SHOT, or the right to kill a stranger invading one’s home all illustrate this fundamental right of people and other creatures to kill to protect their environment. Border disputes between neighbors are a common trigger for violent attacks that are instigated by such trivial matters as an encroaching tree or a shortcut across their property.

Mate. Violence to obtain and protect a mate is the rule of the jungle. Many species, such as wild horses and seals, use violence to acquire and maintain mates or even harems. The Darwinian drive to pass on genes from the fittest individuals is the bedrock underlying the ready willingness to fight to the death over mates. Think: “All is fair in love and war.” At the same time, violence between males and females frequently occurs within intimate sexual relationships. This is the trigger for violence in domestic disputes, infidelity, and attacks by jealous lovers.

Order in society. This drive exists among other social animals but it is highly developed in human beings, because our species is so utterly dependent on social order for its survival. The accepted use of violence to maintain social order differs from violence to establish dominance among individuals in a group. The orderly operation of society is the purpose of this trigger of rage—not dominance among rivals. Violence is used to enforce the rules of society, to assure fairness, and to correct transgressions. Imprisonment, fines, firing someone from a job, revoking a professional license are all modern practices of forcing people to comply with the rules of orderly society through violent action: the forceful removal of liberty and things of value with the intention to harm and punish the individual who transgresses. Rage attacks frequently break out in response to a perceived social injustice. This trigger often ignites mob violence.

Resources. Animals in the wild must fight for their food. Violence will be used to obtain it and to retain it against theft. Likewise, human beings are intolerant of theft and they will react with violence to prevent it. In human society, money and other forms of valuable property are equivalent to food, because these valuables can be transformed into food, housing, and territory.

Tribe. Humans, requiring a tight social structure for survival, will fiercely defend their own tribe. This altruistic behavior is much less common in the animal world, but it does exist. When prehistoric tribes of human beings assembled for their survival in nature, an encounter with another tribe was likely to result in competition, the loss of resources, or the triggering of any of the other LIFEMORTS events leading to violence. Thus human beings have always been wary of others. An us-versus-them imperative rules. Throughout history we see human beings divided by tribe, country, or religion attacking and defending against one another. The Great Wall of China, medieval castles, forts and stockades in the Western Frontier (“Indian country”), the remains of stone walls and moats in Italy, throughout Europe, and Japan, and the tight and clearly defined borders of modern countries that will be defended to the death in war are all derived from this requirement to protect the tribe that is an immutable characteristic of our species. Groups of individuals specialized for using violence to protect the tribe are formed as armies or militia in nearly all societies. Tribalism is what drives inner-city gangs, and tribalism is the basis for racism and war. Avoiding this trigger is essential for peace.

Stopped. Animals will struggle violently to escape restraint, even to the extent of gnawing off their paw if caught in a trap. Humans are no different. Backpacker Aron Ralston amputated his own right arm to free himself after falling into a crevice and getting it trapped under a rock in April 2003. The ordeal is captured in his book Between a Rock and a Hard Place and the film 127 Hours. In the right circumstance this is a rational and lifesaving response. Being restrained, cornered, imprisoned, or impeded from the liberty of pursuing one’s desires will trip this trigger of rage. The accompanying emotion is frustration. The Stopped trigger is what motivates individuals or groups to seek liberty through violent action, such as revolution and war. It also motivates revenge against those who are perceived as having impeded a person’s progress, as illustrated recently by the rogue Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner, who went on a shooting rampage after being fired. Struggling violently to escape impediment and restraint is natural, but artificial situations presented in the modern world that did not exist in the distant past can misfire the Stopped trigger of rage. The anger and frustration that builds in waiting in long lines (or when someone suddenly cuts in line) and similar situations in traffic on the road can set off this trigger.

This trigger can also result from a feeling of oppression, which is in effect the perception by an individual or groups of individuals that they are being prevented from enjoying their rightful benefits in society. Any circumstance that leads an individual to feel cornered falls into this category of trigger to violent rage, as can illness if it is perceived as limiting one’s right to enjoy and fully participate in their rightful place in society.

Any one or more of these LIFEMORTS triggers can initiate an automatic rage response. Whether it does or doesn’t depends on additional factors specific to the situation, the individual’s state of mind, and other contributing stresses and influences. Frequently a situation will present multiple LIFEMORTS triggers simultaneously or cumulatively. This, not surprisingly, increases the likelihood of violence.

Take my reaction to the pickpocket in Barcelona as described in chapter 1; several LIFEMORTS triggers were pulled when the thief snatched my wallet, including Life-or-limb, Family, Environment, and Resources. The loss of resources was the prime trigger (Resource trigger). Without money for food, shelter, and a place to stay (Environment) my well-being was very much at stake. Add to this Family, as my daughter’s welfare was also threatened and she was dependent on my reaction to the situation. Finally, Life-or-limb: once the situation had exploded into a street fight, my life and limb were certainly in peril. It was him or me at that point. Had my daughter not been accompanying me, there would have been one less trigger, and that could have made all the difference in how I responded instinctively. Family is also what triggered my daughter to come to my aid, leaping through the air to intercept my wallet and recover my BlackBerry while I struggled with the thief.

Now consider why the gang of pickpockets reacted by chasing my daughter and me through Barcelona for the next two hours after I had defeated and nearly strangled their pickpocket and derailed their coordinated intentions to rob us. Insult: the pickpocket had been insulted by my beating him up, and indeed the gang’s credibility had been threatened. Tribe: tribalism, the essence of any gang, was then evoked to chase us down and seek revenge.

Meet the Author

R. Douglas Fields is senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He became head of the Neurocytology and Physiology Unit, NICHD in 1994 and chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section, NICHD in 2001. He is editor in chief of Neuron Glia Biology and a member of the editorial board of several other journals in the field of neuroscience. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is an excellent read, it can explain a lot about human behavior
Anonymous More than 1 year ago