The neuroscience of violent rage

Violent rage results from the activation of dedicated neural circuitry that is on the lookout for existential threats to prehistoric lifestyles. Life in civilization is largely devoid of these threats, but this system is still in place, triggering what largely amounts to false alarms with alarming frequency.

We are all at the mercy of our evolutionary heritage. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the case of violent rage. Regardless of situation, in the modern world, responding with violent rage is almost never appropriate and almost always inadvisable. At best, it will get you jailed; at worst, it might well get you killed.

So why does it happen so often, and in response to seemingly trivial situations, given these stakes? Everyone is familiar with the frustrations of daily life that lead to these intense emotions such as road rage or when stuck in a long checkout line.
The reason is explored in “Why we snap” by Douglas Fields. Briefly, ancient circuitry in the hypothalamus is always on guard for trigger situations that correspond to prehistoric threats. Unless quenched by the prefrontal cortex, this dedicated sentinel system kicks in and produces a violent rage response to meet the threat. The book identifies 9 specific triggers that activate this system, although they arguably boil down to 3 existential threats in prehistoric life:

1) Existential threats to the (increasingly extended) physical self (attacks on oneself, mates, family, tribe)

2) Existential threats to the (increasingly extended) social self (insults against oneself, mates, family, tribe) and

3) Existential threats to the integrity of the territory that sustains these selves (being encroached on or being restrained from exploring one’s territory by others or having one’s resources taken from one’s territory).

Plausibly, these are not even independent – for instance, someone could interpret the territorial encroachment of a perceived inferior as an insult. Similarly, the withholding of resources, e.g. having a paper rejected despite an illustrious publication history could be taken as a personal insult.

The figure depicts the rage circuitry in the hypothamalus - several nuclei close to the center of the brain (stylized)

The figure depicts the rage circuitry in the hypothamalus – several nuclei close to the center of the brain (stylized)

Understood in this framework, deploying the “nuclear option” of violent rage so readily starts to make sense – the system thinks it is locked in a life and death struggle and goes all out, as those who could not best these situations perished from the earth long ago, along with their seed.

Of course, in the modern environment, almost none of these trigger situations still represent existential threats, even if they feel like it, such as being stuck at the post office.

In turn, maybe we need to start respecting the ancient circuitry that resides in all of us in order to make sense of seemingly irrational behavior, perhaps even incorporate our emerging understanding of these brain networks into public policy. In the case of violent rage, the stakes are high, namely preventing the disastrous outcomes of these behaviors that keep filling our prisons and that kill or maim the victims.

Read more: Unleashing the beast within

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One Response to The neuroscience of violent rage

  1. Peter DO Smith says:

    1) Existential threats to the (increasingly extended) physical self (attacks on oneself, mates, family, tribe)

    Coincidentally, only one week before this post(on the 7th January), I was put into this position(See Five young men demanded my cellphone and then stoned me to force me into submission. They used large rocks and their bombardment was fast, hard and accurate. I fought back vigorously with my pepper spray, kept my cellphone and repelled them, despite quite severe injuries to my head, chest, arm and hand.

    Your post made me re-examine my feelings during this time. What I did not feel was violent rage. What I felt was a steely, absolute determination and resolve. What made the difference? Why did I not react with violent rage?

    The first thing to note is that events unfold very fast, so fast that there is no time to think, analyse or consider. One must react very quickly and it must be the right reaction or one is lost. To do that one must have rehearsed the situation in one’s mind, so that, when the time comes, the right reaction follows very quickly. It is a kind of interiour coaching to develop the right actions and the right attitude. I live in a dangerous part of a dangerous country, am well aware of the dangers and consequently had carefully considered this possibility. So I was well coached and prepared. Even so, my reaction was, in some respects, faulty. More about that later(*).

    I think that mental preparation and mental rehearsal negate the violent rage. The violent rage comes from a panicked reaction to the unexpected. It is a symptom of unpreparedness, multiplied by fear and loss of control. It is the final resort when all else fails. It is the last, desperate throw of the dice. But violent rage is bereft of all thought and can lead to the wrong actions.

    I agree that violent rage is “the activation of dedicated neural circuitry that is on the lookout for existential threats to prehistoric lifestyles.“. But I also think(following on my experience) that cognitive humans have acquired the means to override this circuitry. This is acquired by preparation, that is rehearsal, coaching and experience.

    (*) My mental rehearsal had not considered the possibility of stoning, or that my attackers would stone me from outside the range of my pepper spray. And so I chose the wrong option. I stood my ground and fought as best as I could, which nearly killed me. My best option was to have rushed them to quickly get within striking distance with my pepper spray. Such aggression would have unsettled them, they would have had far less time to stone me, and my pepper spray would have finished off the job.

    Mental rehearsal is then, I think, vital to preventing dangerously undirected violent rage. It makes the right reaction and a successful outcome more likely. But, as my example so painfully showed, it must also be the right mental rehearsal.

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