Seeing Red out of the Blue




We like to believe that we are in control of our actions, but sometimes we are not.  A sudden incident can overtake conscious will and launch us into violent action that risks our life and limb in an instant.  I know, because it happened to me.

I am a neuroscientist, and after witnessing my violent reflexes explode without conscious deliberation I was propelled on a quest to understand the disturbing behavior of suddenly “snapping” aggressively–to freeze that perplexing moment in time and look inside the brain to find out what is happening in our head when sudden violence erupts without conscious control.  The search took me into scientific laboratories around the world to learn the latest findings on the neuroscience of sudden anger and aggression, and into the field to meet extraordinary people who depend on this rapid-response neural reflex to perform aggressively in some of the most demanding and dangerous situations imaginable:  secret service agents, members of US Navy SEAL team 6, elite athletes engaged in extreme sports.  I learned that our brain is hardwired for sudden violence, and that we have these neurocircuits of rage because we need them.  When the results are inappropriate or tragic we call it “snapping,” but when the outcome is good, we call it “quick thinking” or heroic.  Either way, it is the same neural circuitry that is operating beneath the radar of our conscious mind.

We see this bewildering behavior as flashes of rage on the road or fits of violence in sports, leaving automobiles, tennis rackets, and sometimes relationships in ruin.  The shocking behavior ranges from someone “losing it” and raving at a coworker, a family member, a stranger in a pub or at an airline counter, to someone snapping violently and killing someone–even a loved one.  Road rage, for example, can suddenly erupt into a violent pursuit between two complete strangers who are now furiously bent on a physical altercation that ends in a motor vehicle accident or physical assault.  A 2015 study by Privilege Insurance, found that Brits are likely to experience one road rage event for every 20 minutes of driving on UK roads.  My sudden explosion of violence came out of the blue. . .

Read the full article “Why are we prone to sudden ‘snaps’ of rage and what we can do to control them,” in The   Independent, Feb. 1, 2016.

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