Why do we get angry? On some levels, it’s a primal instinct, one of our oldest and most primitive emotions, hard-wired into our brains by evolution. Anger is also societal, with American culture more accepting of hostile displays in public (to which anyone who’s ever been stuck in rush hour can attest).
As it turns out, there’s a lot going on in your brain when you get angry. This week’s Brain Games investigated our mind on anger, looking at how our body’s reaction to rage has more to do with what’s going on inside our head than what’s going on outside. We break down 10 of the most interesting ways human brains deal with anger and what scientists who study the psychology of rage have found.
1. Some evolutionary psychologists think anger was actually a useful development for the survival of the human species. According to theories, anger helped our ancestors compete for critical resources for survival, from food to mates, helping them prevail in the natural selection race.
2. The amygdala is the part of your brain that initially triggers anger. When you first encounter something that makes you angry, it’s in the amygdala where you actually get worked up, a very primitive part of your brain. Also functioning as your brain’s fear alert system, the amygdala reacts to the initial stimulus by raising the alarm, causing other parts of your body to spring into action.
3. After your amygdala alerts your body, your adrenal glands kick into action. These glands along the top of your kidneys start pumping out chemicals like adrenaline. As anyone who’s ever felt an adrenaline rush course through their body can attest, this chemical rush increases your heart rate, force of contractions (causing that chest-fluttering sensation) and blood flow to your brain and muscles. Your body also starts producing more testosterone, a chemical that kicks your aggression into higher gear.
4. As adrenaline is making your hands shake and testosterone is making your cheeks flush, your brain is kicking into rage mode as well. You begin to speak louder and faster. And that scowl that creeps onto the face of a really angry person? That’s a physical reaction to rage as well, as your facial muscles tweak your expression, giving you an ominous look that sends a warning to those around you.
5. When your body reacts to your rage, it ramps up the intensity by making you even more manic. A 1990 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that talking loudly and quickly, two telltale signs that anger is infiltrating your system, can increase your cardiovascular activity. To recap: adrenaline pumping through your system makes you talk rapidly, which even further increases your heart rate, making you more worked up.
6. Your brain is hard-wired to pick up clues of anger in others. According to researchers, infants as young as six months old can tell the difference between angry and happy adult faces, processing those two expressions in different parts of the brain. Unhappy faces trigger the brain’s right temporal area, with smiles activating the corresponding area on the left.
7. When we think of anger, we think of masculinity. According to a 2009 article in the Journal of Vision, subjects were shown two androgynous faces with different expressions – one face had lowered eyebrows and strained lips, telltale signs of anger, while the other had a smile. Participants were more likely to identify the angrier-looking face as a male, and the smiling one a female, despite having any other facial characteristics.
8. Getting mad isn’t equally accepted in every country. In European and American culture, at least, it’s generally acceptable for strangers to show anger in public in appropriate situations. However, in East Asian countries, anger is treated differently. According to a 2010 study in Psychological Science, displays of anger can actually backfire in East Asian cultures, where your displays of rage makes the other party less likely to make concessions.
9. All those chemicals that pump through your body when you get mad? They can take a physical toll on the body. According to a 2009 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, subjects who were angry had a higher risk for developing coronary heart disease. Older studies also point to angry people showing signs of accelerated decline in lung function, speeding up the natural process of aging.
Frequent rage is no good for your mental health, either; a 2012 study by Concordia University researchers found that anger seemed to hinder treatment and worsen conditions of patients who suffered from anxiety disorders.
10. As destructive as anger can be, getting mad can also motivate you. In a puzzling paradox, when your brain kicks into fight mode, it also lights up an area in its own left hemisphere usually activated by more positive emotions. Anger’s positive effects can be traced all the way back to our ancestors. As scientists believe, when hunter-gatherers got angry at their neighbors, they were able to bargain more effectively and prod them into cooperation. Anger can also coexist with empathy, identified in the journal of the British Psychological Society this year in which Appalachian State University researchers found that subjects became enraged about the suffering of others.
And anger, as we’ve all experienced at one point or another, can be motivating. In a 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science, Dutch researchers found that angry subjects were more likely to strongly desire items whose pictures they were shown. So scientifically speaking, haters can in fact be your motivators.
Want more mind trivia? Don’t miss the next Brain Games on Monday at 9P.