Why can my brain, and yours, ignite with anger?

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Our brain holds a roadmap to managing your anger and the anger of others

We all know on a deep gut level what anger feels like. It can be a gradual or a sudden tide of emotion, the sensation of which seems to invade every cell. Our breathing increases, we sweat, our faces flush, and our eyes can lose focus. In fact, the whole body can spring into action as our heart rate, blood pressure, and testosterone levels surge.  All of these body responses are activated by anger, which stems from the most ancient and primitive parts of our brain.

One of my favorite descriptions of the human brain comes from neuroscientist David Linden. In an apt and colorful metaphor, Linden explains that the brain is like a “three-scoop ice-cream cone.”  These “scoops” are the Brain Stem, The Limbic System, and the Neo-Cortex. This three-tiered structure is the current pinnacle of human brain evolution and ongoing brain research has allowed scientists to observe that in fact, the assembly of all human brains is basically the same. 

Starting at the base of the brain is the first “scoop,” the brain stem, which flows down into the spinal cord.  This is the most ancient part of the brain, responsible for critical and automatic bodily functions like heart rate and breathing. In all creatures, a well-functioning brainstem is crucial to both its immediate and evolutionary survival.

Millions of years ago a second “scoop,” the limbic system, evolved. Comprised of many different brain structures, these curve together like a ram’s horn and rest right on top of the brain stem.  The limbic system is the home of our impulses, memory, and our seven basic emotions: anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise.  Within these core emotions exist myriad feelings from annoyance and rage, to depression, remorse, and guilt.  The limbic system is also the site of our “fight or flight” response and because of this basic survival component we often refer to it as the “lizard” brain. In fact, I often describe extreme anger as “going limbic.” The emotional responses generated in the limbic system are sent to many areas of the brain, in particular to the third “scoop”–the Neocortex or “new brain.”           

            Made up of 100 billion cells, the neo-cortex of humans and all vertebrates (animals with backbones) is the location of higher brain functions, such as vision, language, and sensory abilities.  But our neo-cortex is called the new brain for another reason: the development of  “advanced cognition”.   Advanced cognition literally mean a more complicated way of thinking, a process that involves memory, analyzing current information in context of those memories, and formulating a plan to address the current situation.  In particular, a relatively newly evolved section of the neo-cortex called the pre-frontal cortex, or PFC, has been recognized as the brain’s “executive” center and major brain region involved in this “advanced” thinking ability. Our PFC, located just behind the forehead, helps us solve problems, make decisions, and anticipate the consequence of those decisions: to think things through.  The PFC provides humans’ ability to process and tame the deep and primitive, emotions and impulses that radiate from the limbic system.  It is this compact brain section that truly distinguishes us as human beings.  Although other animals have some ability for planning, strategizing, empathizing and perhaps even creative thought, human beings have championed these attributes to build cities, cultures, international institutions of trade and commerce, countless machines and tools, currency, the internet: all activities that stem from the PFC.

Though the PFC is the most advanced part of the brain, it is also the last to mature in humans and takes decades to acquire full function. Following the brain’s evolutionary trajectory, it is the brain stem and limbic system that develop first. Human infants can squirm around in their bassinets and express emotion, but they can’t yet slam-dunk a basketball. The motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls muscles, slowly develops over time.  The maturity of the PFC takes longer, a major part of why the teenagers we live with at times seem so emotional, irrational, and impulsive.  In fact, the PFC is not fully developed in humans until well into the 20’s, and may continue to mature and change throughout our lifetime.  But given stressful conditions, such has fatigue and hunger, we are all prone to “limbic” moments when we have a harder time thinking straight.

We have all experienced those moments of irrational anger, sometimes saying things in the heat of the moment we very much regret later.  In a flash, our limbic system can harness the planning skills of the PFC, usurping rational thought with impulsive actions. Our PFC shuts down and we are unable to anticipate what will happen next if I say this now.  I’ve done it.  You’ve done it.  We’ve all done it. And had it done to us. 

We all have the same basic brain.  We can all outsmart anger by following seven strategic steps.  Next time you get angry I suggest you simply put your hand on your forehead and do the first step in managing your anger: Recognize it is happening.  Recognize Rage. Recognition is a pre-frontal cortical function.  It shifts our brain from the impulsive limbic system to the PFC, where we can think things through. Anger is an emotion designed to change something, so when you get angry the first thing to ask is what do you want to see different. 

This first strategy is simply to recognize you are angry.  Recognize Rage.  

There is nothing wrong with anger.  It’s what you do with it that matters.

Joseph Shrand, MD

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