Ep 122: Why Teens Rage and What To Do About It

Episode Summary

R. Doug Fields, author of Why We Snap and Electric Brain, shares insight from the field of neuroscience on why as evolved as we are, parents and teens still snap at each other. Plus, what new research in the field of brain waves could mean for our kids in the future.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

You’ve been asking your teenager to unload the dishwasher for days, only to be brushed off everytime. One day, you decide that enough is enough–your teen has lost the privilege of having their phone until they unload it. You announce this to your teen, explaining with a perfect sense of calm why this has to happen….but suddenly, your teen flies off the handle! Furious, they hurl insults, exclaim protestations, and then refuse to come out of their room. Why are they getting so worked up over such a small event?

It turns out that this response is a part of a complicated evolutionary brain mechanism, one intended to keep us safe…but can sometimes misfire. It comes down to how we’re wired to face threats, whether we’re being followed down a dark alley or getting into an intense facebook fight! Understanding how this mental system works can help teens from making some impulsive mistakes–and help parents stay cool when arguments with teens heat up.

This week we’re sitting down with neuroscientist Dr. R. Douglas Fields, author of Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain and Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better. Dr. Fields is a leading researcher in the field of brain science, studying everything from experimental usage of brain waves to developmental psychology. Today, we’re talking about aggression: why it comes so suddenly, how it affects our body, and what we can do about it.

Why Aggression Appears

Dr. Fields became fascinated by the brain’s aggressive response  when he found himself being attacked by a gang on the Barcelona subway. While he and his daughter were in the station, he felt someone grasp for his wallet. Instantly, he was able to grab the perpetrator and tackle him to the ground, putting him in a chokehold. With no martial arts training, and no exceptional athleticism….how in the world was Dr. Fields able to accomplish such an astounding physical feat??! 

Asking himself that same question, Dr. Fields embarked on a research journey to understand how the body is able to perceive threats and react accordingly. It turns out, this response is deeply unconscious, monitored by the same mechanisms that our brain uses to regulate hunger and thirst. 

Since this response is hard-wired in our brains, intended to keep us alive, Dr Fields says it’s pointless to tell an upset teen to just “calm down”.  In fact, that will likely make the situation worse. Instead, Dr. Fields suggests educating your teen on why  a situation is firing them up, and prompt them to consider if it’s worth acting on their angry impulses. If someone flips your teen off in traffic,of course they’re going to get upset. But is it worth yelling back and cutting this person off, risking their own safety? Likely not! Having these discussions with teens can keep them from making decisions they regret.

While adults struggle with aggressive responses just like teens do, teens are not as capable of regulating their response, says Dr. Fields. In the episode, he discusses how teens’ have brains that aren’t quite developed enough to control their angry impulses. He shares how you can help a teen learn the importance of self control. 

When it comes to handling danger, there are certain factors that affect the nature of our reaction. Dr. Fields dives into what these factors are, and why they’re so important to understanding aggressive impulses.

The Significance of Sex

There are four main influences that affect the body’s response to a perceived threat: our genetic makeup, our childhood experiences, brain damage (from sources like injury or drugs), and, most importantly, our gender. While it’s important to consider our level of impairment (we all know alcohol can make us a little more inclined to impulsivity) and the nature of our upbringing, Dr. Fields says the number one force that indicates our level of rage is our sex.

Why is this so? Dr. Fields explains that the answer comes down to the bilateral nature of our brain! When women are encountered with a threat, the response takes place in the left side of the brain, where we process smaller details and analyze the situation at hand. When a large man brushes a bit too aggressively against a woman in a bar, she’s not likely to incite violence against him–she’s smart enough to know that’s a battle she can’t win. 

If a man finds himself in a similar situation, he’s much more likely to get rough with the other fellow, because his reaction to danger is processed on the right side of the brain, explains Dr. Fields. This means he’s thinking  more about the big picture, and guided by his emotions. He’s not analyzing how this guy  will come at him when they get into a fight, he’s acting out of fury! This is why 95% of all people in prison for violent crimes are men.

The difference in response between the two genders comes down to mating, says Dr. Fields. Women examine mates for prospects, analyzing their qualities, while men are driven to mates by beauty or their visceral response to the other person. In the episode, Dr. Fields gets into how women funnel their violent impulses into indirect action, such a s gossip or self harm. Beyond just gender, Dr. Fields breaks down why certain things trigger an aggressive response, and how our threshold for becoming triggered can become lower from chronic stress

Stress and Social Rank

Among most mammals, status among the pack is essential to survival…and humans are no different. Status in our society is tied to wealth and access to resources. That’s why office politics can elicit a rage response from us–we’re triggered by the threat to our status, and therefore our stability. When teens fight with somebody on Twitter, their place in the hierarchy  is being threatened in a similar way, causing them to get angry.

Contributing to this is the effect of prolonged stress. If a person is feeling anxious or expected to perform under pressure for a long period of time, their threshold for an impulsive, rage-fueled response is significantly lower.  When your teen is about to overflow from managing school, sports, and their social life, they’re likely to blow up when you take their phone away.

In the episode, Dr Fields explains that before he was robbed in Barcelona, he had faced a few other  threats of robbery in the preceding days, This meant that his body was on higher alert, his brain circuitry changed to be more responsive. He believes this prolonged stress is the reason he was able to defend himself against the perpetrator with a crazy amount of physical strength!

When it comes to responding with anger, educating a teen about why their body reacts the way it does can keep them from making dangerous mistakes and getting hurt. By talking to your teen about the brain science behind facing perceived threats, you can help them move through the world more safely.

In the Episode…

Dr. Fields’ brilliance shines through in today’s episode as he shares some extremely interesting facts about neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. On top of the topics mentioned above, we discuss:

  • Why there only 9 triggers for our aggression
  • How some people with a “warrior” gene are more prone to an angry response
  • Why being meek can be just as dangerous as starting fights
  • How some societies operate entirely without violence
  • Why we should be interested in experimental brain wave treatment

While aggression can be a potentially dangerous part of human nature, there are ways we can understand our impulses to use them as helpful tools. So pleased to have Doug on the show this week–hope you enjoy the fascinating research he presents and use the knowledge of the rage triggers (LIFEMORTS) he mentions to your advantage!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Sympathize with an angry teen and then talk them down:

“Yeah of course you get angry, that’s the wiring we’ve got because it’s a real thing–this is a threat, your rank in your social order is important and it’s been threatened. But hey, this is not the jungle, and is going out and getting in a fight really the way to handle this?”

-R. Doug Fields
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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Dr. Fields, really excited to dive into some of your research. I’ve read a couple of your books. One is called The Electric Brain, and also this book, Why We Snap. You do a lot of research on really detailed and specific processes that occur within the brain. How do you describe your work to normal human beings?

Dr. Fields: Right, Andy. Hey, thanks for having me on your program. Yes, I’m sort of a nuts and bolts neuroscientist. I’m interested in at a molecular and a cellular level, how the brain does all the amazing things that it does. I’m not a person is involved in clinical medicine or treatment, although all my work I feel provides the basis for that. So, I’m a basic neuroscientist. My focus on my research is on plasticity of the brain, neuroplasticity, the mechanisms of learning and nervous system development, but in particular how our experiences affect development of the brain. Everyone’s brain is different, and a big part of that is because the brain wires up according to our experiences in early life. I want to understand how that works in a molecular/cellular level inside the brain.

Andy: This book, Why We Snap, is about what triggers us to lose it sometimes in anger and kind of go off. That can lead to violence a lot of times. You have written that this book was inspired by an event that occurred to you in Barcelona.

Dr. Fields: Yeah. I was giving a talk on my research at a neuroscience meeting in Barcelona. Usually, I travel alone, but this time I was going with my 17 year old daughter who had just graduated from high school. We had a little bit of time before going to my lecture, so we thought oh we’ll go see the Gaudi Cathedral, right? So we’re coming up out of the Barcelona subway system and suddenly I felt this tap above my knee. I was wearing cargo pants, and that’s where I keep my wallet. So, I slapped this pocket above my knee and felt my wallet was gone. I instantly reached back with my left hand and grabbed the robber by the neck in the crook of my arm, flipped him over my hip onto the ground. I jumped on his back and put him in a choke hold. Then this thought comes up to my Cerebral Cortex, “what are you doing?”

Andy: “How did I get here?”

Dr. Fields: “How did I get here?” I’m committed now, because look, I’m on the ground with the robber.

Andy: Yeah, “we’re doing this.”

Dr. Fields: “We’re doing this”! I need to also say, “Yeah, I’m not Matt Damon.” I have gray hair, I’m wearing glasses. I weigh 135 pounds. I don’t have any martial arts training. I don’t have any military experience. I’ve never had a street fight, that kind of thing. But something here in my environment instantly triggered me to engage in this very complicated aggressive response, risking my life and limb. There as no conscious thought. I had this guy, he’s young and a thug, and I got him in this choke hold. I’m yelling, “Call the police. Call the police. I got him.”

Dr. Fields: There’s no response. There’re no cries from the crowd. I look up from my perspective on the ground, and all I see are a circle of men’s feet around me. Then I realized that this was a gang. So, I’m committed. I struggle with this guy, and then his fanny pack came up around his neck. That’s where they put their wallets, and I’m sure weapons, knives and things. He tossed the wallet out to his accomplice. That’s the first time I saw my wallet. You got to understand, I grabbed this guy and I didn’t see him.

Dr. Fields: So, it’s not only why we snap, but how do you snap? How did my brain understand to grab this guy when I didn’t even see him.

Andy: Boom. 

Dr. Fields: How does that work? Yeah.

Andy: Yep.

Dr. Fields: So he tosses my wallet and then I see this woman’s hand leaping through the air. It was my daughter, who was Captain of Ultimate Frisbee team. She did a full on layout on the concrete, and tipped the wallet back into my hand. So, I got my wallet. Then I jumped the balls of my feet, let this guy go, and now I’m dealing with eight other guys.

Andy: Now you just got to run away from the entire gang. Yeah.

Dr. Fields: Except, I was ready to pick up the leader over my head and throw him at the others like bowling. I could have done it. I’ve never felt so much energy with adrenaline. I realized, maybe that’s not the right thing. Anyway, what happened is a well-dressed elderly Spaniard just walked between me and this guy on his way into the Metro, and he said, “He no crazy. Go now.” That kind of broke the ice, and all these hoodlums just vanished like rats down a sewer, leaving my daughter and I just standing there. Just to end this, they then chased us through Barcelona for the next two years. Then it was like a scene out of a spy movie, running down back alleys, in the fronts of restaurants, out the back. It was great, really.

Andy: And you say you’re not Matt Damon.

Dr. Fields: I’m not! That’s the question. First of all, if something in your environment can trigger this aggressive response, risking your life and limb with no conscious thought, hey I want to know how that works. That’s kind of important. That’s what led me into this search to figure out at a neuroscience level, what’s involved. Now I realize that this is a snapping response. It’s the same thing as when somebody wraps a golf club around a tree when they miss a shot. Why do that? You don’t consciously do that. So that’s what led me to this research, and it’s different from a lot of the research in the past because it’s a neuroscientist’s perspective. It’s not a psychological perspective, which there’s a huge literature on that in aggression.

Dr. Fields: The thing that’s happening now is neuroscientists have new techniques. We can go inside the brain noninvasively in humans, and with new techniques in animals and identify the circuits that get activated when an aggressive response happens. Aggression is a behavior like any other behavior. It’s controlled by the brain. In this book, I describe the circuits that control this behavior. The bottom line, the take home message here is that we’re all wired for violence. We have this capability for violence because we need it. We have the same brain we had 100,000 years ago, but we don’t live in that environment anymore. The neurons that control violence are in a part of the brain called the Hypothalamic Attack area.

Dr. Fields: This is a part of the brain deep below consciousness. It’s the same part of the brain that controls hunger and thirst, and sexual behavior. If you stimulate the neurons, put an electrode in and stimulate the neurons in they Hypothalamic Attack region of an animal’s brain, the animal will launch into an aggressive response and kill another animal in this cage. The same circuitry exists in humans. There have been brain stimulation of humans that elicit aggressive behavior. That’s what different. Then the question is, hey what feeds into this attack region of the brain trigger us?

Andy: How does it get triggered? Yeah.

Dr. Fields: Exactly.

Andy: I think probably all parents with a teenager around can relate to the urge to wring someone’s neck or launch into a violent attack every now and then. You point out in here that parents often receive a lot of really helpful advice from advice-givers, like understand what is causing the underlying stress, try to understand at the child’s current age he or she has limited ability to cope with life, always reprimand your child in private, do not use your child as a target when you’re frustrated at work. Take a deep breath and count to 10, but as you point out, a lot of these suggestions aren’t really that helpful when you’re actually in the moment of snapping at your kid.

Dr. Fields: Right, to tell somebody to calm down when they’re angry doesn’t work. It actually makes it worse usually. That’s what’s new here, is understanding is the first necessary step to controlling anything. We understand that we have this hardwired aggression circuitry in our brain because we need it. We need it to defend ourselves and our family. As a species, we’re carnivores, so we have this ability for aggression. What we need to understand is how this circuitry works and how it misfires, because when it works we call it heroism, or quick thinking. It’s only when the outcome is bad that you call it snapping.

Dr. Fields: I think very helpful information for teens, and for anybody but especially teens, is understand and why. Why you suddenly feel this welling up of rage inside. Road rage is a great example. You’re driving down the road and suddenly people will get into deadly hostile interactions. So, why does that happen? Although it seems that almost anything in our environment can set off an aggressive angry response, because we read about this every day in the papers and then we see in our own life, that’s not true. Think about it, this behavior, engaging in aggression, is extremely dangerous. You’re risking your life, your survival. You’re risking injury.

Dr. Fields: The brain highly controls this behavior, and there are only nine triggers, nine types of incidents that will provoke this circuitry. That’s how highly regulated it is. Let me step back a little bit and say what we’re talking about with this unconscious part of the brain, is the brain’s threat detection mechanism. You know, we’re kind of not aware of it for how important that is, but a huge part of our brain is devoted to threat detection. You can see it in animals. It’s survival of the fittest. Well, Homo Sapiens had to deal with survival of the fittest in the natural world.

Dr. Fields: This is all done unconsciously. So, all of our sensory information comes into the brain. We can only hold a tiny amount in our conscious brain. You can only remember seven digits. Consciousness is way too slow to respond to a sudden threat. Our brain, and the brains of animals, has developed high speed pathways that takes information from all our senses and our internal body state and constantly crunches this data and looks for threats. Once it detects a threat, it sets us on a definitive course of action, all unconsciously because consciousness is too slow.

Dr. Fields: So my example in Barcelona, we’re coming up out of the subway, chatting with my daughter, trying to figure out where we are because Spanish is not our native language, just having a nice time. But my threat detection circuitry, constantly looking out for danger, must have picked up this guy, triggering this response. I think that for teens to understand why you’re suddenly angry is the key to controlling this aggression, because you don’t want to control it if you need it. There’s a reason we have it.

Andy: Right.

Dr. Fields: You want to prevent misfires. That’s why I came up with this pneumonic, which I call LIFEMORTS. We’ll talk about it more, but these are the nine circuits, nine triggers for aggression. The reason I created this pneumonic is you’re suddenly feeling anger, you’re suddenly disrespected on Facebook and you’re welling up with anger. So the question is, okay which of these neuro circuits caused that anger instantly? Which of these triggers? If you can identify which one that is, which is a fun game actually, if it’s a misfire, the anger goes away.

Dr. Fields: To give you an example, if you’re in a crowd and somebody bumps into you, you clench up, you turn, and you’re ready to fight. That’s an automatic defensive behavior. It’s the L in the LIFEMORTS trigger, which is Life or Limb. If you’re physically threatened, you will fight back and the animal will. But if that person who bumps you says, “Oh, excuse me,” the anger goes away because your unconscious threat detection said, “Whoa, danger,” put you on alert ready to fight, but you have this control which is part of the brain called the Prefrontal Cortex that goes, “Okay, thank you but that’s a false alarm.”

Andy: Right.

Dr. Fields: The only way this circuitry can communicate these threats to you is through emotion. That doesn’t have language. Animals don’t have language. They carry out all their behaviors without language. So it’s not conscious, but we have these multicolored emotions: jealousy, fear, each of those in a very specific way informs our conscious mind of what is this threat you’ve just encountered? When you’re telling a teen, “Don’t get angry when somebody disrespects you on Facebook,” you’re calling on a part of the brain that isn’t developed. It’d be better to say, “Well of course you’re angry when someone… Here’s why. This was the circuit that’s tripped. You can see why this is vital that you have this aggressive response in the right circumstance, but is being disrespected on Facebook a case where you want to get into a violent interaction? Or commit violence against yourself?” Self harm type of thing.

Dr. Fields: That’s why it’s so important for teens to understand, is that this inhibitory control from the Prefrontal Cortex is not fully developed until your early 20s. Now it’s an interesting question, why do we have this control from the Prefrontal Cortex not developed? Why are teens loose cannons?

Andy: Yeah, they’re just programmed to be impulsive and snap at everybody.

Dr. Fields: We know that. We don’t hold minors criminally responsible, right?

Andy: Right.

Dr. Fields: We understand it. The reason is, is that our brain cheats evolution and develops according to the environment that we’re raised in. If you’re raised in a hostile environment in an inner city area with stress and crime–something like that–the control on this aggressive circuitry is different from if you’re in another. If you lived in a hostile environment, you’re going to be victimized if you don’t have a defense response.

Andy: You’re wound a little tighter kind of to survive.

Dr. Fields: Yeah. That is the reason that it doesn’t develop fully until the early 20s. I think that’s really interesting biology. Again, it’s not a failure. It’s not that the teen’s brain is not functioning right. It’s doing what it should do. I like to say by the time you’re 20 your brain is formed finally, and it will be ideally suited for whatever it is you did with it while you were a teenager because after that, development and wearing the brain really slows down.

Andy: Yeah.

Dr. Fields: You know that. You know somebody who wants to be… I guess I could learn to play the violin, but I’m not going to be First Chair. But you can put a violin in a teenage girl’s hands and four years later she can be in an orchestra. That’s the environment regulating and making this person’s brain ideally suited to the environment that it’s in, and then back to the subject, a big part of survival is the need to deal with threats and aggression.

Andy: You also write in this book that it’s not just environment, there are certain genes that can cause us to be more tightly wound or less tightly wound. There’s the Catechol-O-Methyl Transferase gene, which codes for this protein that shuttles Serotonin out of your synapses, I guess. It’s been nicknamed the “Warrior Gene” because if you have a certain variant of it, then you’re I guess more likely to snap at people, or to have a hard time controlling your anger.

Dr. Fields: Right, yeah we know this. People vary widely on this aggression scale from impulsive and aggressive, to being very meek. It’s such a fascinating question. When you think about it, if we’re encountered with a sudden threat, the right response is not always clear. The right response in some situation may be to be the marine and charge after the threat and take it out. But in another case, that may be a fatal mistake. The right response may be to freeze or to flee. So, we’re all wired a little differently so that as a group we’re protected by somebody having the right response. That’s one interesting thing.

Dr. Fields: In terms of what controls the propensity to impulsive aggression and aggression in general is involving the circuitry of this threat detection mechanism and the control from the Prefrontal Cortex. There are four main things that control that: genes, our experience, factors that impair that circuitry like injury, disease, drugs. We know alcohol makes you impulsive. The most important factor of all in aggression, more important than anything else, is gender. 95% of all prisoners in jail for violent crimes are male. That is something I would like teens to understand, and I think should be taught in schools. Again, we’re talking here about basic brain biology.

Dr. Fields: We are mammals, and mammals that are social like we are, use aggression for many purposes. Aggression is more predominant in males throughout mammals and throughout most vertebrates, because of our evolutionary pressures that selected males for competing for mates, for defense, and these sorts of activities that they don’t fit in the modern world in terms of gender roles, but we have this legacy of our biology. Males are aggressive. I think it’s important for boys to understand that, and it’s also important to understand that the circuitry of aggression is different in male and female brains, because males and females face different kinds of threats.

Dr. Fields: You and I can go out downtown after dark and not be worried about getting sexually assaulted. It’s not in the forefront of our mind. The sad fact is, there’s no female who can’t have that threat somewhere in the back of her mind. So, the brains of males and females through the course of evolution are wired differently to deal with the threats that they are going to encounter. It’s also true that to engage in a physical aggressive battle with somebody who weighs 100 pounds more than you doesn’t make any sense. So, females tend not to engage in aggression because that’s stupid. Females engage in indirect aggression, and different ganging up, gossip, poisoning. I think that’s a very interesting aspect to understand. As we go through the triggers, some of them are clearly related to gender differences.

Andy: Also, what would you say to a parent who has a teenager who seems to have that warrior gene that’s really prone to aggressive behavior and snapping?

Dr. Fields: I think it would be important to recognize that circuitry. As I said, you don’t know in any given situation what the right response is, but if you are predisposed to be aggressive, then your response to respond aggressively is likely to be when you fail. You’re likely to fail by being too aggressive. Whereas, somebody else who’s very meek, which can be just as dangerous to be victimized, that you are more likely to suffer from being too passive. Then the first thing is to, again, to understand these LIFEMORTS triggers so that you can quickly understand why you feel the sudden rise of anger, because that emotion serves one purpose: to prepare you to fight.

Dr. Fields: So, why do you feel this? Then with that knowledge of understanding you can quickly say, “I don’t want to get into a physical battle with this person,” then if you are of the more aggressive type, you’re likely to say “No matter what, I need to be extra careful because my tendency is to overreact.” The one other thing I would say that is very important in this whole thing is understanding what these triggers are, but also realizing that the threshold for pulling these triggers are very much affected by circumstances, primarily stress. That makes sense. If you’re under high… What is stress? Stress is your body taking in information from the inside outside and saying, “You’re a threat. Some sort of threat.” You may not be able to know exactly what it is, but we know what stress feels like.

Dr. Fields: When you’re in threat, you lower the threshold for your threat detection mechanism, the same way as you go on high alert in the military with a threat. A burglar alarm or a threat detection response is more likely to misfire in that situation. One way to control things is to understand how chronic stress affects the circuitry. There are all kinds of very helpful stress reduction techniques, which I endorse, but many times the causes of stress are beyond our control and you can’t… A death in the family, or we’re under a lot of stress now with COVID restrictions, and you can’t control them, it’s better to understand “Well, in this situation I am more likely to have a misfire of one of these nine LIFEMORTS triggers.”

Andy: You write on page 341 that chronic stress literally rewires the rage circuits in your brain, setting the snap response on edge.

Dr. Fields: Right, that’s what we touched on before that if you’re in a stressful environment it will tend to lower the threshold for pulling these triggers. This reminds me to say, which I always very often forget, that was the second time we were robbed on this trip. I don’t reveal that until the end of the book. So, people read this and they think I’m sort of a maniac-

Andy: Wow, this guy is like just snapping at a pin drop. Please don’t brush into his leg in the wrong way, he’s going to choke hold you.

Dr. Fields: Right. Right. Then when people understand that actually that was our second robbery and the third robbery attempt in the same trip.

Andy: Wow.

Dr. Fields: And that I did get robbed in Paris just two days before this. So now I think you understand what happened. Talk about rewiring. My brain had learned from being robbed in Paris, and that’s the brain’s threat detection mechanism and part of the brain involved in the Amygdala. The Amygdala learned and that wasn’t going to happen again. My Amygdala did not talk to my Cortex about this. It’s really interesting. I talked to a lot of people. I interviewed fascinating people like Secret Service agents, and SEAL Team Six members, and they have to control all of this, but they also realize that they depend on this circuitry in order to have this gut response, because you can’t consciously take in all of this information. It’s very interesting to understand how stress affects all of this working on an unconscious level.

Andy: You also write on page 186 about a psychological phenomenon called Regulatory Depletion, which means that self-restraint slowly drains away. You say actually right here, the Dorsal Lateral Prefrontal Cortex became less active during the second test of self-control in this study compared to the first attempt, because their resistance to temptation waned.

Dr. Fields: That’s getting in kind of the details of the circuitry. Yeah, the book maybe gets a little deep for some people. The references are there are to the scientific literature and for those who want to know. This is getting into using new techniques, like Epigenetics, functional brain imaging, EEG analysis to understand how the stress affects the aggressive response and how it’s regulated. If you’re repeatedly exposed to a threatening situation, we know that our anxiety drops. I’m a rock climber, a mountain climber and rock climber, and after a while when you’re up there 1,000 feet of air underneath your feet, you start to sometimes get shaky knees. We call it “Sewing Machine Knee”. Your body says, “You’re going to die.” So, adrenaline hits the systems, prepares you to fight and everything, but after a while it goes away.

Dr. Fields: Then you see rock climbers just walking around on dying edge things as though they’re on a sidewalk in the city because they’ve habituated to that. That’s when things get dangerous. We’re very careful. That’s why you hear about most climbing accidents happen on the way down. There are various reasons for that. One reason is, the repeated exposure to this threat where you didn’t suffer kind of dampens that threat.

Andy: You’re less vigilant.

Dr. Fields: Yeah. That’s used therapeutically for people with PTSD, maybe had an IED bombing in a jeep in Afghanistan. They come back and they can’t ride in a car without having a full blown anxiety attack just like when they experienced the real bombing. One of the treatments for that is therapists will have them re-experience that, drive around and not have a bad outcome. If you do that enough, that will rewire from the Prefrontal Cortex to the Amygdala, to be able to say “This is not the same situation. This is not an acute threat.” That makes sense. The brain is plastic. It has to adapt to the environment. That’s part of the process.

Andy: It strikes me that this is sort of neurological evidence that if you’re spending all day having impulses to snap at your boss, and having to restrain yourself, or your kid is having impulses during school to snap at their friends and teacher, and they’re having to restrain those impulses then it puts you in this state of depletion where that evening you are more likely to get in a fight with your kid or just lose it over something small that you wouldn’t had necessarily have on a different day. I wonder what should we do about that, or is there anything?

Dr. Fields: In my book, I also interviewed a number of types of people who are nonviolent. A good example are The Jains. It’s this Indian religion. They’re completely nonviolent. These are the religious sect that they sweep the path in front of them as they walk so they don’t step on ants. They believe in reincarnation, so they respect all life. They won’t eat root crops. They’re strictly vegetarian, but eating a root crop kills the plant. They are strictly nonviolent. I interviewed them and also Quakers to understand how did they do this. The way that they do it is their society in a nutshell is structured to avoid all of these nine triggers, all of these LIFEMORTS triggers. That’s the main thing.

Dr. Fields: Secondly, it is experience, the children are raised in this environment. They see their dad in a road rage incident doesn’t react the way that maybe another dad would who wasn’t a Jain, who was constantly trying to do this. Also, the kind of isolated set, I think, genes are part of it as well. The main message here is that they structure their life to eliminate to the extent possible these nine LIFEMORTS triggers. There’s also a downside to that, Andy. They are completely nonviolent, and I really admire and respect them, but they would not defend their family if there was an intruder coming into the house. It’s because of this higher deep religious belief they have that getting to Nirvana involves separating yourself from these earthly desires. Many of us just couldn’t live with that kind of injustice of allowing our children, or our spouses, or friends to suffer an attack without coming to the raid. It illuminates how this response is a double-edged sword.

Andy: Right. We all have to find where we put that line, or how we calibrate it. It’s got to go somewhere. It seems like at some point, you’re going to have to snap.

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About R. Douglas Fields

In addition to being the author of Why We Snap and Electric Brain, R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and an international authority on brain development, neuron-glia interactions, and the cellular mechanisms of memory. Dr. Fields has published over 150 studies in scientific journals and books from his experimental research on the brain. His scientific research has been featured in media outlets including the National Geographic, ABC News Nightline, NPR Morning Edition, and public television. In addition to his scientific research, Dr. Fields writes about neuroscience in several popular magazines including Outside Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Scientific American and Scientific American Mind, and he is a regular on-line columnist for The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Scientific American, the Society for Neuroscience BrainFacts, and others. He serves on the editorial boards of several neuroscience journals and is scientific advisor to Scientific American Mind and other science magazines.  

He is currently Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland. He holds degrees from UC Berkeley, San Jose State University, UC San Diego, and he was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and Yale Universities before joining the NIH in 1987.

His outside interests include mountain climbing, beer making, building acoustic guitars, and, once upon a time, avoiding gangsters in Barcelona with his teenage daughter.

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