Your Brain Is Hardwired to Snap
All Of Us Have Neurons That Can Make Us A Killer Or A Hero
Not all of us snap, but all of us could.
Why do only some of us Snap, then?
An Author-Expert who has been researching this phenomenon discusses what he's learned in an interview...
From road rage to domestic violence to mass shootings, the news is full of stories of seemingly “normal” people suddenly going berserk.
The easy availability of guns only compounds the problem.
But how and why does this happen?
The traditional explanation is that these outbreaks of rage and violence are aberrations: the result of moral and psychological defects.
But in his timely new book, Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain, Fields shows that violent behavior is often the result of the clash between the modern world and the evolutionary hardwiring of our brains—and that, unless we understand its triggers, we are all capable of snapping.
Speaking from his home in Bethesda, Maryland, Fields explains what neuroscience is teaching us about rage; how the Baltimore riots were about tribe, not race; and why men are more prone to violence—and heroism—than women.
Interviewer in Italics
Expert In Bold
You trace the causes of rage and violence to a “tiny knot of neurons at the core of the brain where conscious thought cannot penetrate: the beast within.” Dissect it for us.
A large part of the human brain, just like the brain of other animals, is devoted to threat detection. These circuits are constantly evaluating our internal and external state for threats. This cannot be conscious, because that’s too slow. It’s deep in the brain below the cerebral cortex, where consciousness arises, in a region called the hypothalamic attack region.
The hypothalamus is where a lot of our urges and automatic functions are carried out, like sexual behavior. The hypothalamic attack region controls defensive-aggressive behavior. If scientists stimulate these neurons with an electrode, an animal will instantly become aggressive and attack a test animal in the cage.
Are men more prone to rage and violence than women?
When you look at the subject of aggression there is no more important factor than gender. Something like 90 percent of the people in prison for violent crimes are men. Men have different brains than women, which comes from our different roles during evolution, when the brain was formed. Men had a role of being aggressive, which makes no sense for a woman because a woman was not endowed with the physical strength of a man, who probably outweighs her. But although 90 percent of those in jail are men, 90 percent of people who have been awarded medals by the Carnegie Institute for heroism are also men. In a quarter of those cases, these are men who gave up their lives and died in an instant to do something heroic, often for a stranger. So the rage circuit is good and bad. It’s a double-edged sword.
One of the paradoxes of human nature you explore is that “rage circuits evolved to help us, not to harm us.” Tell us about the passenger on Northwest Airlines Flight 253
The so-called “underwear bomber” starts to set off a bomb on a plane headed to Detroit. This one passenger hears a pop and sees some smoke, leaps over several rows of seats and attacks the would-be terrorist and subdues him. Afterwards, people ask him why he did that. He says, “I don’t know, I didn’t think.” But all the other passengers around this guy saw the same thing and fled.
We have these circuits because we need them. Most of the time, they work amazingly well. We don’t call it snapping unless the result of this aggressive response is inappropriate. When it works as intended we call it quick thinking or, in many cases, heroic. We have these circuits to protect ourselves, our family unit, or society.