Take a moment and imagine standing on one side of a busy road, wanting to cross over to the other side. Imagine waiting for more than 10 minutes for the traffic signal to change, and when you see the orange turn to green, you prepare your stance, ready to cross……but…..a vehicle comes rushing in, and you need to take a few steps back to avoid getting hurt. What would you feel then? Would you feel anger rushing through your veins? Would you feel your blood boiling? Would you curse the driver? Well, what if I told you that the vehicle that passed by, was an Ambulance rushing a very critical patient to the nearest hospital. Does that make you feel less angry? Why?
Why did you feel angry at first, but feel the anger dissipate when the detail about the ambulance was added? Our brains are constantly working towards a goal, in this instance the goal was to cross the road. We feel the emotion of anger, when our goals are blocked or when another person behaves unfairly. Here, our goal of crossing the road was blocked, and the driver of the vehicle behaved unfairly by not adhering to the rules of the traffic. When we realize that the vehicle was an ambulance, our brains try to justify that behavior. We begin to believe that the patient in the ambulance is more deserving of time and the driver acted fairly, thus, we begin to feel less angry than before.
The emotion of anger arises in an almond-shaped region of the brain called the amygdala, which is part of the emotional center of the brain. The amygdala receives input from almost all the regions of the body, and is responsible for bringing about a response according to that input.
The prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain which is responsible for critical thinking and making proper decisions. Most times, when we receive emotional input, our amygdala makes us act before our prefrontal cortex can make a reasonable decision.
For example, if a person walking in front of you, steps on your foot, your amygdala might tell you to be angry and hit him, but your prefrontal cortex would instruct you to calmly tell the person to be more careful while walking. When in the emotional state of anger, we tend to be much more impulsive, and are unable to envision bad outcomes that may result due to our actions. We may say things to people that we might regret later or cause physical harm to ourselves (punching a door in anger and hurting your hand).
The case of Phineas Gage
If our prefrontal cortex wasn’t functioning properly, we would probably have a lot of anger issues. You may have heard the case of Phineas Gage, who was a railway construction worker. One day, in a freak accident, an iron rod pierced his skull. Miraculously, he not only survived the accident but a year later, was quite functional but he lost the function of his left eye. During the accident, he had lost a major part of his left prefrontal cortex. Though he was fully functional after the accident, there were major behavioral changes seen in Phineas Gage; he had become very aggressive. It has been hypothesized that he was unable to control his anger because of his loss of the prefrontal cortex. People with dementia who tend to forget things as they lose function in their prefrontal cortex, also tend to get angrier.
Another factor that contributes to the anger response is the release of neurotransmitters and hormones. The neurotransmitters (find out which) increase your level of alertness and arousal that make you concentrate on the particular incident, while neglecting everything else. Hormones such as adrenaline and nor adrenaline which are released, lead to the constriction of the blood vessels, and an increase in the blood supply to the extreme regions of the body, like the limbs and face. This explains why some people’s faces turn red with anger or why their blood pressure increases.
Anger is a natural human emotion. In fact, it has even been proven to be hereditary. Researchers have found that mutations in a gene called DARP-32 affect the catecholamine compounds in the brain, which make some people more susceptible to anger.
It is impossible to not feel anger, but one must learn to control it. The Dalai Lama, who is known for his calmness advises, “Don’t hold onto your anger. Feel it fully, and then let it pass.” To let time pass, is indeed a solution. One is often told to count backward from 10 when angry, this gives more time to your Prefrontal Cortex to make a good decision, so that we can avoid hurting others as well as ourselves. However, it would take at least 20 minutes for the effects of the neurotransmitters to die down and for you to calm down completely.
Anger is something that is innate to us, even babies get angry! It is true that it is a negative emotion, but we must learn to fully understand it and not let it get the better of us.
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Saunri Dhodi Lobo is pursuing M.Sc in Life Sciences with specialization in Neurobiology. Her interests include writing poetry, going for nature walks and swimming. Currently she is involved in research on Alzheimer’s Disease in fruit flies.
Read all Articles by Saunri Dhodi Lobo
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