Thursday, October 7, 2010

Where is the Rage?

There are at least two approaches to this question, and today I’ll take a physiological route. Rage is an emotion. It is viewed as negative if it’s directed at us—positive if directed at some perceived enemy—whence, of course, comes the popular question, asked in frustration: “Where is the outrage?” Viewed from another angle, rage is a natural reflex to threats. For this reason our bodies are constructed so that we respond reflexively, very rapidly—more rapidly than our intellectual brain-cycles can.

Experts tell me (there are lots of articles on anger management on the web) that rage is set off by the amygdala. That’s the singular name for a complex structure of nuclei located in the mid-brain but linked to the temporal lobe. We have two amygdalae; their purpose is to process emotional stimuli. They interpret incoming perceptions, relate these to memories, and set off spontaneous reactions to threats. They cause the release of catecholamines (flight-fight hormones), adrenaline, and other neurotransmitters that prepare us to act—and violently if need be.

Rage is therefore a response to something that threatens. Threats may signal mortal danger, hence the body has no time to waste on thought. The processes set off by the amygdalae bypass the usual bureaucratic brain-procedures and lead directly to action—or at least to preparation for action. Rage is a reflex—and the body is stimulated. Rage acts like a drug. The emotion may be negative, but the body feels good.

To be sure, the amygdalae evoke memory, first of all; they look in memory for appropriate responses based on our past behavior. This suggests that over time we can educate our own reaction to all kinds of stimuli, not least to threats. Thus it’s possible to develop very exaggerated reactions to threats that have not the least potential of immediately harming us—as well as very cool reactions to stimuli that threaten us with immediate, actual, physical harm—sang froid, as the French call it. In the long run, you might say, over time, we can develop optimal reactions to threats.

The modern tendency to raise the emotional above the rational—expressed as “sensitivity” and demonstrated by fictional heroines like Diana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation who always empathically asks, “But how do you feel?”—produces the widespread cultural message that “rage” and “anger” are appropriate—and human—responses to the endless flow of sewage that spews from the media. Not quite. Rage and anger produce reflex responses. When the threats are vague and nebulous, when most of the news are trial balloons, when the messages, especially in an election year, are designed to rouse and aim the public rage so that it will express itself without the least bit of thought—why then the consequences are worse than all those things that cause us to flare up in righteous indignation. But that indignation feels good, you see. It makes us think that we are real somehow. Thought is so . . . so thin, so nebulous…


  1. I find that I have a picture of Spock up on my cubicle wall, despite the fact that Troi looks a good deal better in those tight catsuits she always wore.

  2. What an insightful post. And the Spock v. Troi analogy is nice too!

    This rage inspiring newsertainment industry practice (also used heavily by political parties) often works quite well on me, I'm afraid.

    When I heard about the family whose house was allowed to burn down while the fire fighters sat by watching, I'll admit, I felt rage rising in me. The dishes I was doing were in true danger!

    The remedy I guess is to avoid such intentionally rage producing things, or, perhaps, go into training... amygdala training to inure oneself to this onslaught.