The human brain is designed to “snap” under threat, but 100,000 years of evolution did not prepare us for the world we live in today. R. Douglas Fields, PhD, describes how the brain’s rage circuitry is activated — whether that’s a car that cuts you off on the highway or a pickpocket who steals your wallet. The primal rage response also explains a lot about the January 6 mob mentality, the unruly airline passenger who strikes a flight attendant, or a terrorist attack. Learn the nine triggers that are programmed to make you snap (and how to identify the “misfires”).
Phil Stieg: Hello and welcome. It is my pleasure to have Dr. Douglas Fields with us today to talk about why we snap. Dr. Fields is a noted neuroscientist and author of several books, including the topic today Why we Snap. He started analyzing brain circuitry, but on a trip to Barcelona with his daughter had a life changing experience, which led to his focus on rage or why we snap. Let’s learn how our brain allows us to act heroically or snap, and what is the difference? Dr. Fields, welcome. And thank you for being here.
Doug Fields: Thank you. I’m delighted to be on your program.
Phil Stieg: So, Doug, and you don’t mind if I call you Doug, right. Okay. So that everybody’s on the same turf. Can you tell me what you mean by snapping?
Doug Fields: Well, who hasn’t experienced snapping in a blind fit of rage? And what it is, is an explosive, aggressive response. It overpowers your judgment, your compassion, pain. And the other key element is that it’s not conscious, it’s rapid, it’s unconscious. And the outcome is regrettable. Right? If the outcome is not regrettable, we call it something else, like quick thinking or heroism.
Phil Stieg: So are you equating them snapping with rage? Are they one and the same?
Doug Fields: The words are used differently. And rage can be a cold rage or a raving rage. But the reason rage pertains is that we talk about a blind rage, and that really gets to the essence that this happens suddenly and it overtakes you. And it overtakes reason and compassion. Why wrap your golf club around a tree because you miss a shot, that sort of thing? So that’s the reason for rage. It’s not a conscious act. And that’s what really intrigues me about this behavior.
Phil Stieg: So then my next question was, are the levels of snapping? But it seems to me if it’s not conscious, maybe there is. You answer that question, are there levels of snapping?
Doug Fields: Well, the interesting thing about snapping or sudden aggression is that if you read the newspapers, it seems that almost anything can provoke this attack, violent rage on a freeway or whatever. And so it’s bewildering. It’s also embarrassing. I think that’s why we overlook this subject. It’s very important neglected subject. But if you take the perspective of neuroscientist and you say, hey, this is a behavior. All behaviors are controlled by the brain. And now look into the brain and find out what is the circuitry that controls this response, you find from a neuroscience perspective that, no, it’s only very specific triggers that will elicit this behavior. And they are in response to very specific situations.
Phil Stieg: So that everybody understands this was a very personal experience for you. Could you briefly go through your experience with your daughter in Barcelona so they know why you feel so strongly about this concept of snapping or rage?
Doug Fields: Well, this is what got me started on the book. Like all scientists, I travel the world to present my research, and I was in a scientific meeting in Barcelona. Usually I travel alone, but this time my daughter had just graduated from high school, so she was coming with me to see Europe for the first time. And just before I gave my talk, I thought we’re in Barcelona. Let’s go see the Gaudi Cathedral. So we’re coming up out of the Metro station. I felt a tap above my left knee. I slapped it and my wallet was gone. I instantly shot my left arm back, clothes lined the robber by the neck as he tried to hand off my wallet to his accomplice, flipped him over my hip, jumped on his back and put him in a chokehold on the pavement. And then this thought bubbles up to my mind; “What are you doing? What are you doing?” And I had no conscious intention to get into a fight. You don’t want to get into a fight. As you said, I’m 135 pounds, grey hair, wire-rimmed glasses. I don’t have any martial arts training, no military experience, street fights. But now I’m on the ground in a life-or-death struggle with bad guy – a young, strong bad guy. And it was him or me.
So that was the inspiration for the book. If something in your environment can suddenly cause you to engage in a life or death, life or limb violent reaction, I want to understand how that worked. At the neuroscience level, at the brain circuitry level. How does this work? Secondly, how is it even possible? Because I didn’t even see the guy, yet somehow my brain knew.
Phil Stieg: And you have no recollection. I mean one minute you’re slapping his hands off your thigh and the next minute you’re clothes lining him, boom!
Doug Fields: Yes. And that’s why it’s snapping. You don’t think about it. When I got into the circuitry, as we will, this response does not involve the cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain that gives us consciousness and reasoning.
Phil Stieg: Well, it’s interesting. It made me think about. I remember years ago reading about someone’s loved one was trapped under something heavy and the person of a grand piano. I think it was. And the person just lifted the grand piano right off the person so they could get out. I’m presuming that you would classify as a snapping moment.
Doug Fields: Well, this is key to the whole thing. The person lifting the piano off or the woman lifting a car off of an infant. This is why we have this circuitry. Our brain has evolved through survival of the fittest, struggle over eons because, unfortunately, we need aggression. Most animals have aggression. Aggression as a behavior. We need it because we have to obtain food. We’re carnivores, we need to protect our young and whatnot. But it’s highly regulated because it’s dangerous to engage in aggression risks your life or limb. So that’s the one thing that’s why we have this circuitry. Snapping is not a neuroscience misfunction. We have this because we need it now, like any kind of burglar alarm is something you can have misfires. And that’s when we call it snapping.
Phil Stieg: But it also involves these kind of superhuman skills. Again, you’re 130 pounds with gray hair and wire rim glasses, clothes lining, a guy taking them down, putting them in a chokehold. This is beyond what you would routinely do. It’s not only neuronal circuitry, there’s something else with the physiology or body going on.
Doug Fields: Yes. Once you’re engaged into a life or limb battle, your brain and body amp up to the maximum and we understand the circuitry and the physiology of that. So you do have superhuman strength in those moments.
Phil Stieg: Early in your book, Why We Snap, which I would recommend everybody should read because it really gives you insight I think into what’s going on in America these days. But you make the statement that killing is programmed into the brain. And I stepped back and thought about that for a while. That’s a fairly strong statement.
Doug Fields: It is startling, isn’t it? But yes, we are pre-programmed. You don’t have to learn this. And in the 1920’s, Walter Hess was studying the brain by putting electrodes into the cat’s brain. And he would stimulate the electrodes and try to understand the circuitry responsible for behavior. And he found one part of the brain that when he stimulated that part of the brain, the animal would engage in a violent attack and kill an animal in his cage or a test object.
That is not in a conscious part of the brain. It’s deep in an unconscious part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls many bodily functions that are automatic sex, drinking, thirst and hunger. And so he named it the Hypothalamic attack region. Humans have it. Other animals have it. And if you stimulate those little nodes of neurons in this unconscious part of your brain, this complex behavior to engage in an attack is released. So the new science now is – and the big question has always been – what causes what feeds into this knot of neurons to release this aggressive response that will result in killing
Phil Stieg: You’re a neuroscientist. I’d like to just have you briefly go through the neuroanatomy of this. You know, how it’s all interconnected, the hypothalamus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and all these fancy names?
Doug Fields: Sure. So we have a threat detection mechanism in our brain. Actually, a huge part of our brain is devoted to threat detection in all animals. And information from our senses goes to the cerebral cortex – vision, for example, to analyze objects and be able to read or whatever. But that is a very elaborate process and a time-consuming process. That’s not going to work to allow you to dodge a blow to your chin. That’s too slow. So we have a second pathway. That is a high-speed pathway to the brain’s threat detection mechanism, which involves the amygdala and the limbic system. And every one of our senses goes there first by high speed. Now, a good example of that is if you dodge a basketball, you bat this out of your way, and then you go, what was that? You can’t see it.
So that’s the feature of snapping. It’s fast – it’s not deliberate. Conscious reasoning is too slow. So for defensive mechanism, we use this threat detection mechanism in the brain involving the amygdala that activates other regions of the brain, the hypothalamus to release all the hormones and accelerate the blood system to engage in a fight. But it’s also a connection to the higher level parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Those connections go two ways. And this is key because the prefrontal cortex can control and suppress this response.
Phil Stieg: Doug, you’ve defined nine triggers of rage. Can you define what a trigger is?
Doug Fields: Yes. A trigger is something in the environment that will trigger this aggressive response. Now, as I said, engaging in aggression is very dangerous. And so it’s highly regulated. And it isn’t true that almost anything can set it off. There are only very specific, sudden dangers or threats that will cause this behavior to be released. And that’s why I call these triggers, and they’re independent neural circuits.
Phil Stieg: You list nine triggers, which you give the mnemonic “L.I.F.E. M.O.R.T.S”. Do you want to go through that for us?
Doug Fields: So I created this Mnemonic called L.I.F.E. M.O.R.T.S. By the way, it’s actually two words. Each of these letters stands for one of the circuits, one of the triggers to cause aggression. And these are based on neuroscience. I’ll give you an example. Everyone knows the Mama bear response, right. So don’t get between a mom of bear and her cub. Neuroscientists can put electrodes or fiber optic cameras into the brain of genetically engineered mice and see which circuit is activated when a mother rat, for example, protects her pup. They can then knock that out and the mother will no longer exhibit that behavior and protect her pups but she still responds to one of the other triggers. So that’s why there are these different triggers. So I’ve just given you one the Mama bear response. I call that family in L.I.F.E. M.O.R.T.S. So I just began there because people are familiar with that.
So let’s go through in order. L for life or limb. Of course, if you’re attacked, you’ll fight back. Any animal will nothing to lose.
I is for insult. You know, in any social species, and we’re totally dependent on our society. Your rank in society, your access to mates and resources depends on your rank. Right? You go first class or coach. But in the animal world, and certainly in primates, aggression is used to establish your order in society. And so if you feel that’s threatened, this triggers an aggressive response. Like a bar room brawls. These are constant insult. Duels to the death around the world were accepted as fine.
Okay, F for family. E for environment animals who are territorial will protect their territory with violence. And we can see that in many animals in nature. But humans are fiercely territorial. Trespassers will be shot. I call that E for environment.
M is for mates, and aggression is used in many primates to acquire and maintain mates. And some of the same neural circuitry is involved in aggression and mating.
O is for order in society. Again, we’re totally dependent on our social order and the rules of society. If you’re outside of society in the woods for 24 hours, they’re going to send out a search party because you’re going to die. So what holds society together or any social species together, are these rules and violence is used to maintain those order in society. So it’s different from rank. See here, this is rules. So, for example, somebody runs a stop sign, you get angry, why do you get angry? You get angry because that person has violated the rule, and we enforce those rules now, with the legal system that uses aggression – take away your rights, take away your money, put you in jail – for maintaining functions in society.
R is Resources. That’s easy to understand. That was the pickpocket taking my wallet. A puppy will even snap it at its owner if he gets his hand near the dish. So resources are obvious.
T is for tribe. You know, when the human species evolved early in our history, you probably knew everybody in your world because we were in small tribes. And an encounter with another foreign tribe was a threat. It was a threat to resources and mates and whatnot. So we have developed this circuitry for aggression to protect and defend our tribe that exists today. But again, this is important. It’s what is responsible for human success. It allows us to make countries and societies. It allows us to say we’re going to beat the Russians and go to the moon. It’s a remarkable capability. But it has this ugly side of gangs and whatnot.
And S is stopped. So any animal who is restrained will fight aggressively to get free. This is why you suddenly get angry when your Internet connection fails or you’re held up in traffic.
Phil Stieg: Stuck in New York traffic.
Doug Fields: It’s no different than being snagged by the ankle.
Phil Stieg: What occurred last January 6 in Washington, DC, there were acts of tribalism and vandalism. In your mind, was that snapping on a high-volume basis with thousands of people getting involved? Or was that just a mob?
Doug Fields: That’s such a fascinating example, because I wrote the book to try to understand the brain individual behavior. And part three of the book turned into, hey, this explains a lot of group behavior – Gangs, Wars, Nations. And that was a big surprise until you realized, well, look, to engage in violence, the people who are called upon to engage in that violence have to have one of these “L.I.F.E. M.O.R.T.S” tripped. Secondly, the person, the leaders who instigate this violence or war, it has to be one of these nine triggers in their mind.
Phil Stieg: Do you think it was a mixture of some people snapping and other people just wanting to make a statement?
Doug Fields: No. It’s a great example of both. So I want to make clear there was snapping. That was an example, but a really important point we haven’t gotten to yet is that there’s also deliberate violence. Right. We talked about the circuitry. The cortex comes in later, but it feeds into the limbic system and the brain’s defense mechanism. The point is, these nine triggers, even if it’s a deliberate a terrorist act or a deliberate criminal act, it will be one of these nine triggers. Because those are the ones evolutionarily and by brain wiring that are appropriate to engage in violence.
So you can have reasoning. I’m going to become a terrorist or become engaged in a mob because the election was stolen. The O trigger – didn’t follow the rules. The R trigger, right. We were robbed. So those were all pushing on circuitry in the brain, which predisposes people to engage in violence. And it was done deliberately.
Phil Stieg: Social media seems to play a large part in some of these individuals that snap. As you said, they get into a tribe. They can start feeding on the concepts of the tribe. Do you agree with that that social media is playing a negative role as far as snapping is concerned?
Doug Fields: Yes, it is definitely having a role. It incites violence and terrorism. It forms gangs. It pushes on these triggers. Let me remind people that I’m not a politician, and my political views are not better than anyone else’s. But different perspectives on a problem can be helpful. Psychology, neuroscience, politics. They’re all helpful. But a neuroscience perspective can really be helpful in understanding what happened in recent wars and in recent mob actions like January 6. We need to be aware that these nine triggers can be manipulated. We need to be aware that this is what causes gang behavior. That’s hard to understand. Why would somebody engage in gang behavior? But they need to be part of a group. We need to understand that.
Phil Stieg: I think everybody would understand the analogies that you drew in your book about as humankind evolved from the Plains of Africa, we had to go out and Hunt and kill and react instinctively. But most curiously, you mentioned the internet as a way of the role that it can play in this rage response. Can you expand on that?
Doug Fields: Yeah. So we have the same brain we had 100,000 years ago. It hasn’t changed, but our environment is nothing like that environment. We have a brain that is coping with the world. It was not ever designed to deal with flying through space with your rear end a foot off the ground at 60 miles an hour inside of a machine or the internet where you can suddenly get a tribal interaction with someone in the other part of the world and have a culture clash. Terrorism in the Middle East – or anywhere – would not have had the opportunity to know that there was another tribe in their perception threatening them.
So you have high speed communication. We have higher density. And you have these silos of information. You have ability to indoctrinate and lead people to promote aggressive responses or tribalism. And then we have these weapons of destruction that amplify well beyond anything the brain and body was ever evolved to deal with. If somebody in centuries past had a similar trigger and they didn’t have an AK 47, it would be a very different outcome.
Phil Stieg: You must be fascinated by this whole COVID event. You can’t turn on the news and not hear about a patron punching out a hostess at the entrance to a restaurant because they were asked to show their vaccination or the Airlines the attendants being punched out. I’m assuming that that’s all just stress related to the secondary effects of COVID and isolation.
Doug Fields: Yes, exactly. We’re all under stress, and it’s so important to know this because we need to be able to manage this problem. The point of learning the triggers is if you can recognize a situation where one of these is being pressed upon. That’s a situation where the brain is wired to respond with violence. So we have this situation where people wearing masks object to that because they feel that freedom is being encroached on. So we have the O trigger order in society. This is not the way things should be done.
You have the tribalism of red state, blue states, and you have certainly the “L” trigger right before somebody sneezed fine. But if they’re not six feet away and they sneeze – that’s a life-threatening situation and you get angry and anger is just an emotion to prepare you to fight. And then you have the “S” trigger. I’m sorry, you can’t come into the bar because the bar is closed. So we had all these triggers that were suddenly pressed due to the pandemic. Then you laid on the stress. People having loved ones die, they lost their jobs. We had these huge inequities in society revealed. So everyone is under stress, and it’s no surprise that we have people getting into physical battles on Airlines and grocery stores.
Phil Stieg: And you suggest that anger management therapy is not the solution for this?
Doug Fields: Well, I don’t want to put it down. It’s good. It’s helpful. But have you ever told somebody when they’re angry to calm down? (laugh)
Phil Stieg: I’m glad you said that. I appreciate that in your book. I agree with you. Totally. They’re not going to calm down.
Doug Fields: No, you’re pushing the S trigger on them. You’re impeding them. Anger management. That’s all very good and very helpful. But it’s often not enough, right? So what people really need to know is to understand why they’re angry. Why are you suddenly angry when this guy cuts into your lane on the freeway? And if you can realize that, oh, it’s one of these triggers. (That’s the E trigger by the way.) You suddenly realize “oh, that’s a misfire. Of course I’m angry. I’m prepared to fight to defend my territory. That’s my lane”. But then you realize, “oh, actually, that’s a misfire. That’s not your lane.
Phil Stieg: So then the therapy you’re suggesting is insight into the fact that you’ve got something going on in your L.I.F.E. M.O.R.T.S. mnemonic, and recognizing that and then trying to deal with it or confront it.
Doug Fields: First step to control anything is to understand it. And, yes, that’s how it works. That’s also why I created the L.I.F.E. M.O.R.T.S., so you could quickly do this because you have to do it quickly. And it’s actually fun. It’s a fun challenge. You feel some rising anger go. Which trigger is it? And we talked about the unconscious brain. It brings to the conscious mind a threat. And the conscious mind can then veto or do whatever it wants. But you don’t need to go through this elaborate, conscious rationalization. That’s not it. You just need to recognize it’s a misfire.
You’re in a crowd, somebody bumps into you. What happens? You tense up, you turn, you’re ready to fight. And it’s just an instantaneous response. It could be even just a crowded place. Somebody bumps you, you turn, you’re ready to fight. No rationality there. But if the person says, oh, excuse me. What happens instantly? The anger goes away. And that’s diffused because it’s been identified as a misfire. That’s the key to the L.I.F.E. M.O.R.T.S.
Phil Stieg: Is the takeaway message, then, that number one, you should recognize in these nine triggers for rage, you should recognize where you might be vulnerable and recognize what stressors can accentuate or lower your risk of triggering so that you can try to deal with this in a premeditated fashion such that you don’t snap.
Doug Fields: Yes. You have to be aware of this neuroscience, this biology of aggression. It’s important. And again, to use this January 6 example is another example of why we have these triggers for regression. Look at the police and National Guard. They had to engage violence with violence. And what were the reasons they were the same thing? They were protecting the environment. It was ordering society. Some of them were physically attacked. It was the L trigger. So we had these individuals willing to engage in violence to give their own life, because we have this evolutionary need that has developed circuitry in our brain to have this behavior when there is no other option – when it’s necessary. And unfortunately, society often requires aggression to protect it.
Phil Stieg: Dr. Doug Fields. Thank you so much. Author of Why We Snap. It’s been a delight talking with you about the nine triggers that facilitate people snapping and also ways that we can recognize what they are and how we can reduce the stressors so that we reduce the likelihood of snapping. It’s been a great pleasure being with you. Thank you so much.
Doug Fields: Thank you.