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What Makes you Snap? The Brain’s Rage Circuit

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What is it that causes you to “snap”? To suddenly and explosively lash out verbally or physically? It may be something small. Cut off in traffic, the restaurant got your order wrong, your coworker made the same mistake for the sixth time this week. Then again it could be something much more serious that causes your body to instantly and violently react. Whether it be for reasons petty or important, snapping is something we all do, and there is a reason behind it. A small cluster of nerves in your brain referred to as the “rage circuit”.

Released last month was the book Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain. In it the author, Douglas Fields, explains what causes our sudden bouts of anger and violence, and what we can do to control them.

In his interview with National Geographic, Douglas Fields explains,

“A large part of the human brain . . . is devoted to threat detection . . . It’s deep in the brain below the cerebral cortex, where consciousness arises, in a region called the hypothalamic attack region.”

Dr. Fields labels this region our “rage circuit”. For thousands of years humans evolved in an environment where typically the most immediate and violent response assured continued survival and higher social standing. Even though in modern society we don’t have as much need of these reactionary violent impulses, they are still there and subject to being triggered. Dr. Fields’ book goes into depth about each of the nine basic triggers of the rage circuit.

While much of the book is about having proper control over your tendency to snap, Dr. Fields does not advocate suppressing it. The book encourages readers to take a moment to analyze why they are angry if they find themselves reacting violently, and then decide if it is appropriate to the situation.

And there are times where letting your rage circuit do what it has evolved to do is entirely correct. One of the best examples comes from the life of Dr. Fields himself,

“I was on my way to give a lecture on neuroscience in Barcelona. My 17-year-old daughter was accompanying me. We had a little bit of time before the lecture so we decided to go to the Gaudi Cathedral. We were coming up out of the subway and suddenly I felt something on the pocket of my cargo pants. I slapped it like you’d slap a mosquito, and instantly felt my wallet was gone. Instinctively, I reached back and clotheslined the robber and took him to the ground.

I don’t have any background in martial arts, I’ve never been in the military. I’m not a violent person. What shocked me was that I had instantly responded. This threat in my environment that I wasn’t even aware of unleashed this instant, defensive response. And I wanted to find out why.”

So while there are many circumstances where your brain’s rage circuit will cause you to snap inappropriately, it is there for a reason. To protect you. To let you react faster than your conscious mind can process. It is up to us to learn when we need to rein it in, and when we should just step back and let thousands of years of evolution loose on an unsuspecting pickpocket.