Why We Snap

Title: Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain
Published by: Dutton
Release Date: January 12, 2016
ISBN13: 978-0525954835
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The startling new science behind sudden acts of anger and violence—from the everyday to the extreme—the neuroscience of threat detection

We all have a rage circuit we can’t fully control once it is engaged. The daily headlines are filled with examples of rational people with no history of violence or mental illness suddenly snapping in a domestic dispute, barroom brawl, or road-rage attack. We all wish to believe that we are in control of our actions, but the truth is that the right trigger in the right circumstances can unleash a fit of rage in almost anyone. R. Douglas Fields, PhD, reveals and details for the first time the nine triggers that cause us to snap, and how we can defuse them.

But there’s a twist: The same pathways in the brain that can result in violent outbursts also enable us to act heroically and altruistically before our conscious brain realizes what we are doing. A stranger dives into a frigid winter lake to save a drowning child, or a man fights off a group of muggers to protect his family…  Dr. Fields shows that the rage circuit is a doorway into the amazing abilities of human cognition and the greatest mysteries of human behavior.

Ultimately, what does this science mean for how we can all get along better than we do?  Readers will find a groundbreaking new perspective, riveting stories, and practical advice make Why We Snap an essential tool in the pursuit of social harmony in our troubled world.

Download the LIFEMORTS Triggers of Rage Poster
Learn About the Rage Circuit
Read Five Myths About Why We Snap


"For those craving an action-packed account of what scientists currently know about how rage works, this book delivers."
—Diana Kwon, Scientific American MIND

"Cogent and timely."   "Synthesizing his own and others’ research and scores of case studies, Fields argues that many apparently inexplicable cases of violent rage are down to a clash between hard-wiring in the brain’s hypothalamus, amygdala and limbic system, and nine rage triggers, from life-or-death situations to threats to social order. He shows, too, how factors such as chronic stress can lower that flashpoint."
Barbara Kiser, Nature

"Why We Snap is an important and timely book that uses neuroscience to illustrate why society must come to terms with our evolutionary heritage"
Pascal Wallisch, Science Magazine

“Neuroscientist Fields provides insight into the seemingly inexplicable… highly readable… a thoughtful and essential light on one of the darkest aspects of human behavior.”
Publishers Weekly

“Neurobiologist Fields offers a sensible, plainspoken guide to the all-too-common phenomenon of rage… [a] thoughtful and anecdotal examination… Fields’ timely exploration of sudden acts of violence is sure to inspire conversation.”

“The interplay between conscious and unconscious cognition is not unfamiliar territory, as readers of Daniel Kahneman or Malcolm Gladwell will recognize, but Fields' personal experience adds a fresh viewpoint to an intriguing subject.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Doug Fields explores the dark matter of the soul engrained in the web of neurons in our brain. This is a superbly told investigation into the question of why we snap with urgent, useful implications for our personal lives as well as for the wider world. Everyone should know about the triggers of the rage circuit Doug Fields has defined.”
Daniela Schiller, PhD, Neuroscientist, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai

“This book is a riveting journey into your brain's most mysterious,  dangerous, and possibly redemptive territory. Douglas Fields guides us into the core of rage, and offers us a blueprint for understanding -- and perhaps remedying -- the explosions of violence that can mar our world and our lives.”
—Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code

“R. Douglas Fields illuminates the intricate neural processes involved in the common human experience of “flipping our lid” as we snap out of clear thinking and into states of rage.  By carefully documenting the brain science beneath the complex states of fury and illustrating with examples of real life stories of those who’ve “lost it”, our expert guide reveals how we can both understand the mechanisms and the triggers for such states and use this new knowledge in practical ways to minimize the potential damage of going down “the low road” with ourselves and others.  This is a fine example of applied neuroscience for the benefit of our common humanity.  Bravo!”
—Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., author, Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brainMindsight: The new science of personal transformation; and Mind:  A journey to the heart of being human, Clinical Professor, UCLA School of Medicine, Executive Director, Mindsight Institute

“A fusion of news, in-person interviews, and academic research, this book will appeal to readers of popular neuroscience and those seeking specific information on anger and rage.”
Beth Dalton, Library Journal


The idea for this book came in a flash. I was robbed. As I recount in the book, it happened on a street in Barcelona where I had traveled with my 17-year-old daughter to give a lecture on my research at a scientific meeting. To my surprise, I reacted instantly by fighting back. I did get my wallet back, but I was lucky. I was 56-years old at the time and I have no experience in martial arts or in street fighting. Had I thought about it, I never would have responded this way. “Why did I do that?” I wondered immediately afterward, “and how?”

Read the full backstory

Audio Excerpt


Snapping in Rage

Who has not lost self-control in a blind rage, smashing a dish—or worse? We all wish to believe—need to believe—that we are in control of our behaviors and actions, but the fact is that in certain instances we are not. Something unexpectedly in our environment can unleash an automatic and complex program for violence, destruction, and even death—all of it an unconscious pre-established program.

Rage explodes without warning. Overpowering judgment, compassion, fear, and pain, the fiery emotion serves one purpose—violence, both in words and actions. While this human response has been vital to our survival since our species evolved, rage simultaneously puts your life at risk. And it seems there is no escaping the rage circuit once it has been activated. If rage is an automatic reflex are you really in control of your fate? That flare up with your partner or child or friend or even complete stranger can change your life in an instant, forever.

Despite the essentially peaceful lives most of us live most of the time, killing is programmed into the human brain. This is because, as with most animals, individuals in the natural world must be able to defend themselves and their offspring. Moreover, carnivores must kill living creatures for food. These behaviors are hard-wired in our brain, not in an area where consciousness resides—but instead deep in the core of the brain where other powerful impulses and automatic life-sustaining behaviors (feeding, thirst, and sex) are programmed. Each of these behaviors, just like the complex rage behavior, is automatic once triggered. The question is, what triggers this deadly switch for violence and killing?

The double-edged sword

The power of rage gives a petite woman strength to lift a car off the ground to free a trapped child. It is the stuff that drives a US Marine, 180 degrees against all normal instinct to run into the hail of bullets to save a comrade in jeopardy. But sometimes, this automatic live-saving rage reflex embedded in our brain by evolution, clashes against the modern world. “I just snapped,” the remorseful man confesses tearfully after having strangled his girlfriend in a fit of rage. Rage can ignite a crowd, resulting in sudden mob violence. The triggers can be small or large, individual or collective. The results can be devastating.

We must understand the biology of how the animal instinct inside us works to appreciate how rage arises. We must learn to control rage if possible, and to exploit it when necessary to save our lives. How much of this propensity to rage is genetically predetermined and how much is learned? Precisely what is it in any given situation, and in an individual’s personal history that will trigger rage? Does the tendency to unleash rage reside hidden and latent in everyone, or is it only programmed into a few? How do men and women differ in triggers to rage? As individuals and societies we need to examine the beast within us and confront, in the context of modern society, the biological roots of rage.


It would appear from the daily headlines that countless situations can provoke violent, often deadly rage, making it impossible to know how such varied tragic events get triggered. But it is not the case that these rage attacks are set off by so many different situations that they are incomprehensible. Setting aside cases of pathology, the normal human brain will not engage in violent behavior without very specific provocation. I propose that nearly all of the array of possible provocations can be reduced to only 9 specific triggers.

These triggers of rage can be remembered by the mnemonic LIFEMORTS “life/deaths.” The triggers are listed briefly here and then analyzed in greater depth in chapter six. The triggers could be lumped and split in several ways, just as the infinite variety of colors can be reduced to only 9 basic colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, black, and white) for the purposes of recognizing and categorizing any shade of color.   For the important purpose of being able to quickly identify the trigger in any provocative situation, I have collected these provocations of rage into 9 major categories that can be recalled quickly with this LIFEMORTS mnemonic. Knowing this mnemonic can change your life. In a dangerous situation it could save it.

If you learn to recognize these triggers you can understand why a person snapped in a specific situation. No matter how misguided the response might have been, it will not be a mystery beyond comprehension. If you can recognize which of these triggers is igniting your sudden rise in anger or frustration, you can quickly disarm the rage response. Sometimes it is fully appropriate to unleash “the beast within,” because fundamentally all of these triggers exist to release violent behavior to save your life. The trick is to rapidly identify the trigger or triggers in a fluid situation, and ask yourself if this is indeed a potentially life-or-death situation, or has the trigger designed for life in the jungle misfired in the modern world. When encountering potential rage in others the ability to recognize the triggers will help you in understanding and reacting to it by avoiding inflaming and possibly defusing the situation. A lot of things can make a person angry, but if you perceive that the source of a person’s sudden anger springs from one of the LIFEMORTS triggers, you will instantly recognize that you are in a potentially violent, even deadly situation.