All of us have snapped at some point. A stranger cuts in line or a distracted driver nearly hits us and we lose our cool in a sudden fit of rage. As mass shootings continue to make headlines, it is becoming increasingly important to understand the brain circuits that underlie these flashes of emotion. R. Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the National Institutes of Health, explores this very issue in his new book Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain (Dutton, 2016; 408 pages).
After his own experience of sudden rage Fields began studying the topic and uncovered nine specific triggers, which he summarizes using the mnemonic “LIFEMORTS”: Life or limb (defending yourself against attackers); Insult; Family (protecting loved ones); Environment (protecting your territory); Mate; Order in society (responding to social injustice); Resources (gaining and safeguarding possessions); Tribe (defending your group); Stopped (escaping restraint or imprisonment).
Scientific American MIND spoke to Fields about the incident that sparked the idea for this book and what readers can do to tame rage by understanding the science behind it.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
You mention in the introduction that you were compelled to write Why We Snap after a personal “snapping” incident in Barcelona: When a pickpocket snatched your wallet, you pinned him to the ground and grabbed it back. What was it like to try to understand that moment while writing and researching this book?
Being pickpocketed was the inspiration for the book, but I also had the realization that this is an enormous problem that seems to be overlooked. Every day the news is filled with fights and murders—and they’re not committed by psychopaths—it’s the everyday snapping response. So I wanted to learn more about that and do something about it. The book was a quest to understand the rage response, but I met a diverse range of people, from Navy SEALs to elite athletes—and every one of them was really fascinating. What was extraordinary to me was that this topic resonated with everyone. It felt like a mutual exploration of trying to understand this aggressive response.
In your book you outline nine triggers. How exactly did you hone in on these?
This is a new approach. There are many books taking a psychological perspective on aggressive behavior but I wanted to understand the neurocircuitry controlling these behaviors. Fundamentally, this unconscious reflex response is a threat-detection response. That’s why it’s subcortical and instantaneous. Neuroscientists are studying and identifying these circuits but they use different language—they will call these behaviors defensive, conspecific, maternal aggression and so on. That’s fine, but that’s not helpful to the lay reader.
For people to utilize and control the rage response, there needs to be a way to identify the triggers quickly. I took the neurocircuitry for these aggressive responses and threat-detection mechanisms in the brain and used words that make a mnemonic—LIFEMORTS— reducing them to nine triggers encompassing all situations. It’s so important to be able to identify these triggers so you can understand why you have this sudden feeling of rage and recognize whether it’s an appropriate response or a misfire.
In your book you give numerous examples of people snapping violently, often leaving behind gruesome, bloody scenes. When someone is about to snap, do they actually have time to stop and consider their state of mind? Isn’t snapping an immediate response?
If you can understand this rage response, then you are in a position to control it. Imagine you’re suddenly overwhelmed with anger. The approach now is to tell people to calm down, suppress that anger, count to 3. That just doesn’t work very well. In whatever situation if you feel anger rising—that’s automatic, you cannot control that. Your unconscious mind has taken in enormous amounts of data and has determined that you are in a situation that is threatening and is preparing you to respond physically. It can’t talk to your cerebral cortex. The only way this circuitry communicates to our awareness is through emotion. We have anger, jealously, frustration, but none of those things causes behavior—those are all emotional responses of the threat-detection circuitry in our brain communicating that we’re in danger. These different emotions correspond to specific LIFEMORTS triggers.
Can you utilize the information in this book to put brakes on these triggers? Yes, you can. For example, when I was getting on an airplane with my daughter and everybody was frustrated waiting in line, someone cut in front of us. My daughter instantly started laughing, turned to me and said, “the ‘O’ trigger!” because what this woman had done was provoking anger, but she recognized what the trigger was. So instead of getting angry, she realized it was silly for the woman’s behavior to provoke an angry response.
Now that you’ve done the research to understand that moment in Barcelona, would you respond in the same way in the same situation?
It took me four years to try to understand whether what I did in Barcelona was the right thing. We just had an incident [in Washington, D.C.,] on the Metro where somebody had their cell phone snatched away and instantly reacted the way I did to get his phone back. But the [robber] murdered him with a knife. There is no one right way to respond. If you conclude that you should never respond aggressively, that’s wrong. In the end, you have to trust your gut.
I think it’s the wrong thing in general to respond to a robbery or pickpocket aggressively. I talked to a SEAL Team 6 guy who said he’d never do it. He’d just give up the wallet. I now consciously know that’s the wrong thing. Yet again, the conscious brain is limited. You have to realize as you go through this book what causes the responses and how different people react on a scale from lions to lambs. Then you can do a self-assessment and say that, [for example,] because of my genetics or experience I’m more inclined to be passive in this situation. And knowing that, you can play the odds in a threatening situation.
What do you think are some of the biggest unanswered questions when it comes to the science behind rage?
Right now I don’t think it’s a case of unanswered questions. I think it’s a case of the information not being out, which is a tragedy. Both the public and health care practitioners are decades behind the current neuroscience. I think that it’s really amazing that the information we have is not better known, particularly given what an acute problem it is today. I would like this information to become widely known and taught to kids, especially teenagers who don’t have well-developed prefrontal cortices and impulse control. They need to understand why they’re angry in a situation. Just that insight can be life-changing.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed are those of the author and not those of the National Institutes of Health.