Picture this all-too-real scenario: You’re in line at the grocery store. It’s packed, but you’re just running in for a few items. You stand in the 10 items or less line, when it hits you: the person in front of you has more than 10 items. More like 15. Maybe even 20. You’re overcome with fury. You feel like socking the offending shopper in the nose. Your hand twitches. Don’t they know you’re in a hurry? Why couldn’t they just use self-checkout? Why does this always happen to you?!
Keep your cool. Meet R. Douglas Fields, PhD. He’s a neuroscientist and author with a passion for the human brain. His latest book is Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain. Dr. Fields identifies nine triggers that inspire rage and explains that contemporary society exacerbates these triggers. Dr. Fields created an acronym for these nine triggers: LIFEMORTS (life or limb; insult, family; environment; mate; order in society; resources; tribes, stopped). When you feel irrationally furious, stepping back and identifying why you feel threatened can help you take control of your situation.
Dr. Fields will discuss his book and sign copies of Why We Snap on Thursday, Jan. 28 at 7 pm in the Community Room at C. Burr Artz Public Library. He took time to chat with us about his latest book, his exciting research, and his favorite authors.
Your inspiration for investigating rage was a pickpocketing incident you described when you were traveling in Barcelona with your daughter–when you took on your pickpocket and put him in a chokehold until he relinquished your wallet. The way you describe this in your book, it sounds like an action movie! Why does rage make us feel superhuman? Why does something happen so fast that we can’t remember how we got there?
In dangerous situations, you need to respond instantly. So our brain is wired to be able to aggressively address sudden threats instantly. In order to do that, it has to use circuits in the brain that do not use conscious thought. Consciousness arises from the cerebral cortex, and that’s too slow. Our brain’s threat detection mechanism is sub-cortical and unconscious.
I think it’s interesting that it just bypasses memory altogether.
Oh, yeah. Not only memory, but consciousness. The second part of your question, the superhuman strength: what kicks in is the fight-or-flight response. People have heard of that. But that takes longer! That is a mechanism dependent on adrenaline being secreted from the adrenal glands into the bloodstream. That’s transformative—that prepares you to fight or run, gives a mom the strength to lift the car off a trapped child. That definitely kicked in in [my daughter] Kelly and me as we were being pursued by this gang, by the time I was in a fight with this guy. That’s when I felt I could just pick up this guy and throw him, and I might’ve been able to! So they’re two different responses–the instant response and the fight-or-flight.
And as far as it being like a movie–I’m not exaggerating, that’s what happened! It really was like a movie. We felt the same way. There’s nothing else to do in that situation, and we were using all the tricks that we saw from the movies [laughs].
Maybe you should make a movie of your own! In Why We Snap, you write, “Sometimes, we get angry for good reason. Other times, anger gets us.” A person who flies into a rage may feel irrational, but you advocate that rationality can help us take back our brains. Can you describe one of the tools you recommend for not letting rage get the better of us?
When we have this response inappropriately, we call it snapping. The rest of the time it’s quick thinking. Being able to identify the triggers in the brain that cause this sudden, aggressive response will allow you to quickly determine whether this is a misfire or a situation for which these circuits were designed to release violence. That’s one way, identifying the triggers. That’s why I came up with LIFEMORTS. At the same time, the threshold on these triggers is constantly adjusting–[impacted by] things like chronic stress–but I interviewed many people who worked to regulate this whole response. It is under control of the prefrontal cortex, so people like elite athletes; SEAL Team Six members that have to operate in dangerous environments; and the strictly nonviolent people, the religious Jains, that I interviewed, that’s how they inhibit this circuitry. There are different approaches to being able to control this.
I appreciated especially that you made a strong differentiation between mental illness and rage attacks. You explain very clearly that those are two very different things. I was also fascinated by the “lizard brain” theory that was so popular in the earlier 20th century. Were there other misconceptions you encountered during your research?
I think that’s the big one. This information has only come out in the last few years–how our brain responds to sudden threats aggressively–and is using new methods in neuroscience that have brought this forward. This hasn’t gotten out to the public, and we have this 50-year-old idea that’s way too simplistic about how anger and aggression take place.
The other misconception: People will say and feel that “anger made me do this” or “I did this because I was frustrated.” That’s not right, actually. In my view, what’s really happening is your brain’s threat detection mechanism in your unconscious mind has concluded that you’re in danger. It can’t communicate rationally to your consciousness. The way your brain’s threat detection mechanism communicates to your conscious brain is by generating emotions. Anger is an emotion in which your unconscious brain has prepared you to fight. It’s like confusing the noise of an engine with the mechanism of the engine. That’s sometimes why approaches to try and control the emotion don’t work as well as we would like. The action has already happened in the brain; the emotion communicates it. Stress is how it communicates you’re in danger. Fear is how it communicates you’re in immediate [danger]. We have this amazing, multi-colored variety of emotions, which our unconscious brain communicates through our conscious brain.
Those are two misconceptions, but there are quite a lot of them, actually [laughs].
A lot of times, when you’re angry, you don’t lash out, so it makes sense that anger is more a symptom than a cause.
That’s exactly right. I also think something that’s really important and under-appreciated is how much information processing is going on in our unconscious mind, all the time. That relates to this same question. All our sensory input is being evaluated constantly by our threat detection mechanism. We can’t do that consciously. It would be sensory overload. It’s just amazing how much complex activity is going on in the brain beneath the level of consciousness.
Like when you walk out the door, your brain is readjusting in that transition—kind of like that?
That’s a good example. So, you walk out the door to go to work, and you go, “I’m forgetting something. Am I forgetting something?” And you go through and think, “Nah, I’ve got everything.” Then you get in the car, drive a few blocks away, and then you go, “Where’s my cell phone? Oh, yeah. I left it charging.”
Your unconscious brain was screaming at your conscious mind—it knew you left your cell phone! “Go get your cell phone!”
I never knew there was a reason for that niggling feeling. That makes a lot of sense.
Yeah! But the thing is, these people–like the Seal Team Six, again, or Secret Service agents–will develop a sense to rely on. That’s called trusting your gut. They get that feeling, they will appreciate it, they’ll pay attention to it, and they’ll stop and realize that they wouldn’t have this feeling in their gut if there wasn’t a reason for it.
Like how you can kind of feel if someone is staring at you, when people in books write “the hair on the back of her neck prickled”—that kind of thing?
The nine triggers you name in your book, LIFEMORTS, that might inspire rage—each one is very powerful on its own, but it seems like these triggers and overlap and compound one another. Is that true?
They do compound, absolutely, but they can interact in another way—to inhibit the [rage] response. An example of that is those “Baby On Board” sticker you see on peoples’ cars. That’s really existing to defuse, to suppress the road rage that is so common. It is affecting the family trigger that we all recognize. So there are many cases you can use the triggers to offset another one and manage a situation.
That’s what intrigued me, because we just go, “Oh, he snapped,” and we go on. Or “I snapped,” and it’s embarrassing, but we actually don’t know what that means. To freeze that moment and then look at it has been really interesting.
When I was reading the interview you did with New York Magazine, your interviewer mentioned, “Oh, I think this could be really useful for kids!”
The circuitry we just talked about, the prefrontal cortex, that inhibits this—that’s not fully developed until you’re in your early twenties. Telling [a young person] to suppress the anger is not always effective. They know they shouldn’t have snapped. What they need to know is why they’re so angry, that this is not abnormal. You’re hardwired, as a legacy of our circuitry in our brain from survival in the wild. It makes sense that you would need to respond aggressively, if you were in a situation in the wild where that was all you could do, where it was appropriate. But it it’s inappropriate, then it’s a misfire. To know why you’re angry can make it go away.
In other words, suddenly you’re angry because someone disrespects you on Facebook. I think it would be great to ask the kids, “Yeah, they disrespected you, but why are you angry instead of amused?” or any other of the emotions that could happen. Then, you would say, “Well, it’s because it tripped this insult trigger, which is in a circuit in the brain that when it’s tripped it makes you want to fight.” You could explain the reason why an animal or an early human would need to fight in that situation, but obviously in the modern world over this provocation, it isn’t going to do any good and it’ll probably do a lot of bad.
Right! There are so many insults on Facebook, you can’t fight them all. You’d be exhausted [laughs].
I was reading your article for The Daily Beast about the election season–how political campaigns prey on our fears and stir up rage. How can we, as constituents and voters, stay levelheaded in the months ahead?
That was one of the amazing things about the book, interviewing so many people and having the book go off in so many unexpected directions that I didn’t anticipate. One [direction] was interpersonal relationships, in terms of groups of people and nations.
Fundamentally, a person will not engage in violence unless one of these triggers is tripped. You can take anyone off the street and put them in the Army, and they will fight, become aggressive. Anyone will. But they won’t do it unless they feel one of these triggers has been tripped. That was a problem we had in the Vietnam War. The people who actually had to go there and fight didn’t really feel like any of these triggers were tripped in their mind. The converse of that is when the World Trade Center was bombed, many people were ready to go fight. The reason we were ready to fight after [9/11] was the life-or-limb trigger had been tripped, on a false pretext.
The other thing is that this election has hit on nearly all of these triggers [through] the rhetoric. This election is really being run by fear, and we need to recognize, whether you’re liberal or conservative, how your brain functions when it’s afraid. A lot of the rhetoric is pushing on these triggers—tribalism, protecting one’s environment, self-defense.
A really important thing with respect to tribe is how we define our tribe. This is a brain function, and it happens constantly. It happens subconsciously when you see a person. You instantly categorize them into us versus them. But we need to be careful about how we’re manipulated into defining “us” and “them,” because it’s fluid. There’s a lot of rhetoric going on now that relates to that, both in terms of police shootings and inner city strife, and in terms of the election.
You share all these amazing true stories to help illustrate the hard science in your book. What was your favorite part of researching Why We Snap?
You put your finger on it: It was meeting all these people and interviewing them. It was so remarkable. The thing that was amazing, everyone was eager to do it. Everyone seems to have this same yearning to understand this, whether they were a Formula 1 racecar driver, an elite athlete, or [a relative of] the Boston bombers—where, obviously, the aggression that took place in that situation was tragic, trying to understand what went wrong.
This book is a little hard [to define]. It’s not a psychology book; it’s a neuroscience book. But it’s not a textbook [laughs]. I use narrative and interviewing people. Such a range of people, from the nonviolent people, to the woman who could see with her fingers. Definitely the best part of the book is that it gives you the motivation and license to go out and meet people that you wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to meet.
Your book is immensely readable, and I know you contribute to a lot of news outlets. A lot of scientists don’t take the time to make their field accessible to the average reader, but you do. Where does that passion come from?
Thank you for the question. It comes from two places. First of all, I love science, and I love everything about it: doing it, talking about it, hearing about it, reading and writing about it.
Secondly, I’m really humbled because I have a privileged life. That I can have the job of a scientist, which is basically to explore the unknown, to try to understand nature, and everything I do is supported by everyone else in this society. I don’t produce anything. I don’t make any product. Once I make a discovery, I give it away, so I can go make another one. Somebody else can make money off of it, and that’s good! I want them to do that! But if I were to do that, I couldn’t go on to the next discovery.
The point I’m trying to make is the ability to do this is supported by everybody—the cab driver, everybody who pays taxes. [I want] to explain what we’re doing to the people who support it, because it’s a partnership. They’re every bit as much a scientist as we are. They just contribute to society in their way—everyone in their own way—and so I feel this obligation.
The final thing is, I have to admit, that I enjoy creative things. Science is creative. I build guitars and like photography. But I discovered that writing is the most creative thing I’ve ever encountered, because it’s pure creativity. By the time you write that sentence that comes to your consciousness, the creative act is over and the rest is just production. There’s no instrument between me and the creative act. [As] a photographer or a musician, I’ve always got this technique, this instrument between me and the creativity. I found with writing, this art just comes out of this part of the brain. I have to admit that I like that [laughs].
Since I am interviewing you for a bookstore blog, I have to ask: Who are your writing influences, and what are some of your favorite books?
The favorite book that I read recently was All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. In general, I guess I read pretty broadly. I like John Steinbeck for his right brain and H.G. Wells for his left brain.
(Interview has been edited & condensed for clarity.)
Learn more about R. Douglas Fields’ upcoming visit to Frederick here. The Curious Iguana team hopes to see you on Thursday!