Triggers of rage

Douglas Fields and his seventeen year old daughter Kelly emerged from a dark subway station into the brilliant light of Barcelona.  Douglas felt a sharp tug at his pant leg.  He slapped his zippered pocket and found that his wallet was gone.  “My left arm shot back blindly.  In a flash I clotheslined the robber as he pivoted to hand my wallet to his partner and flee down the steps.  As if swinging a sledgehammer I hurled him by his neck over my left hip and slammed him belly first onto the pavement, where I flattened him to the ground and applied a head lock.”

DouglasFields
Douglas Fields

Fields was 56 years old, and his only fighting knowledge was from wrestling on his junior high school team.    He applied an illegal choke hold, and cried for the police.
The crowd did not help, because as Professor Fields  realized to his horror, the men’s feet closing around him in a tight circle were feet of other gang members.  The thug being choked threw Professor Fields’s wallet to a confederate, but it was intercepted by a woman’s hand darting between the thicket of legs.  That woman was Kelly, who herself had been on an “ultimate Frisbee” team – an experience that came in useful here.  Her father released the young, muscled thief, and then father and daughter ran away.  The gang pursued both of them throughout the city for the next two hours. The gang had been humiliated and wanted revenge.  Douglas and Kelly ran through restaurants, cut through back alleys, changed clothes, and when the bad guys got too close, left the sidewalk and ran through the middle of streets, weaving through oncoming cars.  Tattooed thugs with big biceps and cell phones kept track of them, but finally they caught a taxi out to a small town an hour away and escaped.

Professor Fields is an expert in “Nervous System Development and Plasticity” and the Barcelona experience prompted him to write the book “Why We Snap”.  His belief is that the same instant reaction that saved his wallet in Barcelona is behind our unfortunate tendency to sometimes engage in sudden violence that we later regret.
He lists nine reasons why we feel a rise of anger.
1. Threat to Life or Limb (self defense)
2. Insult.  He feels this may be related to the more general phenomenon of “dominance” in hierarchies in the animal world.  I suppose people would rather not be down at the bottom of any hierarchy, especially if it means being despised and stepped on, but he doesn’t say that specifically.
3. Threat to Family.  Think of a mother bear and her cubs.  In fact, I and my brother once hiked right between a mother bear and her two cubs.  The cubs scrambled up two trees, and we heard what sounded like an earthquake on our left, as Mother bear took off into the underbrush.  Since I am still here to write this blog post, I guess that means we are lucky this Mom was deficient in family values.
4. Threat to Environment (protecting home and territory).  A person can violently attack a neighbor for trivial matters such as the neighbor taking a shortcut across his property, or not cutting down an encroaching tree.
5. Mate.  A wild stallion will use violence to obtain a harem, as will some other animals. Animals will also fight to protect a mate.  Ironically, violence between males and females often occurs when they are in intimate relationships (think jealous lovers).
6. Order in Society. “This drive exists among other social animals but it is highly developed in human beings”.  It is not about “dominance”, but rather about assuring fairness and correcting transgressions and enforcing the rules of society.
7. Threat to our resources. 
8. Threat to our tribe.  Not just referring to a standard tribe, its also includes country, religion, and even inner-city gangs.
9. Stopped: “Being restrained, cornered, imprisoned, or impeded from the liberty of pursuing one’s desires will trip this trigger of rage.”
malala
There are ironies with these motivations.  Consider the story of Malala Yousafzai.  At eleven years old, this girl typed in her blog her thoughts on the injustice of the Taliban controlled areas in Pakistan.  Girls were not allowed education, were secluded in houses, and had forced marriages – and those marriages were at an early age.  Malala Yousafzai’s views began to attract attention in the media.  Her father founded a girl’s school, which she attended.  One day two armed men stopped the school bus and shot her and two of her classmates.  She was left disfigured and with brain damage, but survived (She had medical care in England where her family emigrated.)
Professor Fields  says a life-risking rage of commitment against injustice is a core trait of human beings.  For Malala he says the “organization” and “tribe” triggers propelled her actions.  Now here is the irony – he thinks the same two triggers propelled the gunmen who shot her.
Professor Fields’s book has some new findings from the world of brain science, such as this:
Item #1:
Some people seek more novelty in life than others.  However, increased novelty seeking is also associated with addiction.  It is also associated with gambling.  Both are linked to dopamine function (dopamine plays some role in reward) and we also know that a side-effect of treating Parkinson’s disease with the drug L-dopa  is increased risk-taking, gambling, and sexual promiscuity.  But it is important to realize that risk taking in the sense of “extreme-skiing” or flying a plane to remote parts of Alaska is not the same as risk-taking with drugs, and even within ‘ethical’ risk-taking, there are differences – mountaineers like to explore, but may show no interest in BASE jumping.  But even taking the example of the author, Mr. Fields, who rock climbs for fun, taking risks is obviously not always accompanied with gambling or addiction.
Item #2:
Sex and violence are linked in the brain.  There are certain neurons which, when stimulated with high intensity, are involved in fighting behavior – but if those neurons are stimulated with low intensity they cause mating behavior.  These experiments must be confusing to the female mice.
Another story Professor Fields  tells is this one:
A woman named Anita Sarkeesian likes to play video games, but she writes critically of the violent sexual degradation of women in video games.  She had to flee her home after she was hounded by violent threats of rape and murder because of that criticism.
A Steve Azar song says:
After only nine lonely giant steps I managed to
Make it to my car
And drive off without once lookin’ back to how
Beautiful you are
You know all the space between love and hate
Really ain’t that far
For those who wonder whether women are better than men, or vice versa, there is an interesting statistic:
Ninety percent of violent criminals in prison are men, but men, in far greater numbers than women, will also instantly risk their life for a woman, child, or stranger in danger.
  Professor Fields  gives one really heartrending example of the latter.  When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine overheated and exploded, almost fifty tons of highly reactive fallout rose into the atmosphere.  But ten days later, it was noticed that water that firefighters had poured on the burning plant for days had collected into a highly contaminated pool beneath the core of the reactor.   The core had melted down into a lava oozing its way down, and it was known that if it made contact with the water, there would be a massive thermal explosion that would send a deadly plume of radioactive steam across Europe.  Three men:  Valeri Bezpalov, Alexei Ananenko, and Boris Baranov, volunteered to dive into the pool and swim using scuba gear to find the safety valves to drain the water away.  They did that, and saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Europeans.   They paid the price –All three died after two weeks of radiation sickness.   They all knew that death was certain when they volunteered.
I think there is a subconscious calculation going on when we feel an emotion.  For instance, Professor Fields  says that
if the pickpocket [in Barcelona] had been twice my weight, I doubt if I would have grabbed him by the neck….That the guy was about my size must have been a calculation made instantly and unconsciously….At the same time, if I had seen that there was an entire gang involved, I would not have fought back..  I suspect that my unconscious mind would not have triggered the response if it had detected the gang either.
I would not be surprised if a similar unconscious calculation is present in other emotions.  How may times have you suddenly fell in love with an obese person for example?
People differ biologically. They differ for instance in the strength of the connections from the frontal lobe to the limbic system (such connections may have to do with self-control). They also differ culturally.  Professor Fields tells this story:
“Some 100,000 jubilant people flooded Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, in a spontaneous celebration of freedom–Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak had just fallen from power.  CBS news reporter Lara Logan waded into the crowd with her new team to capture the historic transition.”  However, hordes of men sexually assaulted her and brutalized her for half an hour, and she would likely have died if the had not been protected by a small group  of Egyptian women and finally rescued by the Egyptian Army.  Logan was not the only victim.  The atmosphere started with excitement and happiness, but “In a split second, everything changed.” wrote British journalist Natasha Smith:…
Men had been groping me for a while, but suddenly something shifted.  Men began to rip off my clothes.  I was stripped naked.  Their insatiable appetite to hurt me heightened.  These men, hundreds of them, had turned form humans to animals.
Many other women were raped.  Yasmine El Baramawy reported the following, after being knocked down to the ground
I looked up and saw 30 individuals on a fence.  All of them had smiling faces, and they were recording me with their cellphones.  They saw a naked woman, covered in sewage, who was being assaulted and beaten, and I don’t know what was funny about that.
I (the blogger) speculate that maybe in some way these men felt oppressed by women, or by a system that conflicted with their ideas of the rightful status of women.  So as they threw off the restraints of the dictatorship, they overthrew good restraints as well.  Why they should feel this way, if that’s true, is a puzzle.
rescueInEgypt
Maybe there is a link between sexual feelings and vengeful feelings, or aggressive feelings.  But if so, why are their so many incidents in the U.S. of men saving strangers, both men or women?  I remember when a woman threw herself off the Tappanzee bridge, near where I live, in a suicide attempt.  An El Salvadoran immigrant immediately jumped into the Hudson river right after her to save her.  This took remarkable courage and decency, and completely conflicts with the image you get from the Tahrir story.

life_is_worth_living
Dissuading suicides on Tappanzee

The main take-home point from Professor Field’s book is that we have various triggers to sudden rage within us, and while these triggers fit our needs in many situations, they can also have terrible consequences. He also says something I partly disagree with:

Struggling to comprehend a suicide bomber’s “thinking” or police searching for “motives” in cases where violence is driven by perceptions of threat, alienation or emotion is a search in vain. Such violence is not driven by reason. It is driven by rage.

I can’t step into the mind of a suicide bomber, but at least in Israel, sometimes these bombers are people who were shamed in their own society, and seek redemption by killing some Israelis. On the other hand, I saw a video of an Arab with a knife who approaches a Jew from the back in an alley, and then stabs his victim. I was amazed at the nervous energy and the impression of lashing out that the Arab attacker showed. That was rage and hate. But rage is not the same as hate. And if we just go by the title of Professor Field’s book, “Why We Snap”, he seems to be talking about a quick reaction, not a long planned operation.

Sources:
Why We Snap: R. Douglas Fields, PhD (2015)
Prof Field’s blog is interesting, one post is at: http://rdouglasfields.com/2016/04/the-neuroscience-of-violence/
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