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Addicted to Rage?

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Biology 103
2001 Second Web Report
On Serendip

Addicted to Rage?

Charlotte Ford

Aggression, as many New Age bataca-bat-wielding psychologists proclaim, is not all bad. Chimpanzees and other monkeys use aggressive behavior to compete and negotiate their status within groups. Primates use aggression to create social systems by establishing status. (1). Fighting actually appears to bring some primates closer: apes and monkeys tend to make up by hugging and kissing, and tend to later seek more frequent contact with those they have fought with. (1). Chimpanzees also fight before becoming friends. Human children display this behavior, though in my experience boys usually physically fought while girls tended to be catty. Female chimpanzees, however, unrepressed by human gender roles, have no qualms about getting physical. They fight to renegotiate ongoing relationships, not to end them. Primatologists suggest this may also be true of humans.

Certainly, this explains some aggressive human behavior. We tend to get most angry with those we most love, and healthy conflict is a means of negotiation. But does this explain all human conflict? Some conflicts end in severed relationships; communication and negotiation often fail. Are most conflicts intended as negotiations, but some go awry? Hate usually springs from love, because if we didn't love someone first, we wouldn't care enough to hate. But what about when human aggression becomes violent? Murder doesn't renegotiate relationships meant to last; it ends them. This doesn't rule out the possibility that in a murderer's misconstrued logic, the murder could be an attempt at reconciliation, but how does a human aggressive instinct become violent and destructive? Some violent characteristics can be inherited, such as a propensity for impulsivity or low IQ. (3). Genes can influence oppositional temperament (vindictive, angry, control-resistant, deliberately annoying, blaming others, unempatheric or callous behavior). But genes are not destiny - Tremblay, who has done numerous studies monitoring children with these characteristics through adulthood postulates that the real question is "how do they learn not to aggress [?]"(3). Early environmental factors can prevent such behavior from developing into adult violence. Early abuse and neglect, however, can alter the stress-response and activate predisposed characteristics of impulsivity. Extremely stressful and traumatic childhood environments may even cause such neural circuitry to become "overloaded" and shut down, thus causing emotional blunting. (3).

Which sections of the brain are responsible for violent behavior? The idea that violence was related to the frontal cortex was first hypothesized in 1848 when "the astonishing case of Mr. [Phineas] Gage, foreman of the railroad in Cavendish, who in preparing a charge for blasting a rock had an iron bar driven through his head, entering through his cheek and passing out at the top with a force that carried the bar some yards, after performing its wonderful journey through skull and brainsŠHe is likely to have no visible injury but the loss of an eye." (7). Gage survived 12 more years, but the iron bar that destroyed a large part of his prefrontal cortex seemed to be responsible for transforming his previously sunny disposition into an extremely aggressive, violent and reckless personality.

More recent investigations done by Larson et al. suggest that the faulty regulation of Phineas Gage's negative emotions was probably involved an inhibitory connection from part of the frontal cortex to the amygdala. Their studies suggest that violence is caused by faulty emotional regulation, or an inability to quell negative emotions. The amygdala is activated in response to threatening situations, and its proper functioning is necessary for learning about events that are punishing or rewarding (implicated in aversion to unpleasant stimuli). Larson et al. proposed this after studies on rodents showed that lesions of the Pre-frontal cortex (PFC) interfere with aversion to unpleasant stimuli (aversion response). This implies that an unlesioned PFC inhibits the amygdala and creates aversion response. When lesions form on the PFC, the amygdala is no longer inhibited and aversion responses slow down or halt. Rodents were also more impulsive (2) (2). the messages a healthy PFC would send to quell anger before it turns to violence would not be sent. Larson et al. suggest that some brains may be born with a propensity for faulty emotional regulation, but early environmental influences can also influence circuitry. (2).

In support of Larson et al.'s findings, Coccaro's studies suggest that violent and impulsive people are not as good at tasks thought to employ the PFC. They tend to not recognize facial expressions of anger or disgust, and when playing card games, they continue to pick cards from the dangerous decks which promise high returns but continually produce losses. Controls learned not to pick from the dangerous decks. (5). Mandler proposes that violent subjects show low levels of arousal and thus use thrill-seeking aggressive behavior to make up for it. (6).

Serotonin, a neurotransmitter implicated in cases of depression, addiction and eating disorders, also seems to play a role in violence. Violent individuals tend to have dysfunctional serotonergic projection in the frontal cortex. (2). Lower serotonin levels in the PFC have been found in convicted killers. (5) (5).

Thanks to brain imaging advances, scientists are now finding evidence that compulsive non-drug behavior such as gambling, eating disorders, sex, and "intermittent explosive disorder" - all related to impulse control in the PFC - may create long-term changes in the brain's reward circuitry. (6). Gamblers, like drug addicts and violent offenders, do poorly at "gambling tasks," in which success depends upon the ability to perceive that delayed gratification produces higher gains. (6). Addiction creates dopamine deficiencies so that addicts must, for example, drink more alcohol to compensate for tolerance and raise chronically low dopamine levels. Is it possible that some violent offenders, with low serotonin levels and inability to perceive rewards, commit violent acts in an attempt to raise low serotonin levels? Certainly, more circuitry is involved: studies cited earlier suggest that violent offenders have difficulty gauging others' reactions and controlling their own rage. Violent behavior seems to stem from faulty socialization. But which chemicals trigger violence? Could violence be an attempt to jog serotonin levels? Is it possible to be addicted to rage?


WWW Sources

1)Understanding Violence

2)Dysfunction in the Neural Circuitry of Emotion Regulation - A Possible Prelude to Violence

3)The Violence of the Lambs

4)Searching for the Mark of Cain


6)'Behavioral' Addictions: Do They Exist?

7)Scientific American, November 1848



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

09/25/2005, from a Reader on the Web

just recently i was in a situation where i was pushed beyond my limit and lost it i dont remember what happened, a friend of mine had to tell me what i did i blacked out and when i came back to it i had someone pinned on a car hood was the the instigator if the situation. i felt an extreme adrenaline rush and felt a rage that even scared me. i have never experienced something like this before but i would like to know what caused the black out and the rage


Additional comments made prior to 2007

I would like to comment to the reader who blacked out during a rage.... it sounds a lot like the dissociative episodes I experienced as I grew up ... I felt I had to dissociate in order to survive.

Watching my ex become increasingly cruel to our children has firmly convinced me that abusing anyone or anything (including ourselves) is an addictive adaptation that we humans engage in. This is why too many batterers escalate their abusiveness ... they have to in order to get that same "high" as time goes on.

Are these people dissociating as they abuse? To some degrees, maybe, but because they can turn their rage so completely off at work or while shopping, for example, their abusiveness soon becomes 100% their CHOICE! As a result, there must still be very firm consequences for their poor behaviors ... there are too many counselors out there who\'d love to help heal these abusers if only they were allowed to work with them.

Unfortunately, too many abusers get off scot-free and as a tragic result, women and children are not just screamed at, beaten, kicked, raped and worse ... THOUSANDS of these victims DIE every year in the US!! ... Reader on the web, 3 July 2006


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Recently, my boyfriend had a

Recently, my boyfriend had a one of the 'aggression black outs' that the other user commented about. While we were kissing, he got extremely scary naggressive, and I could not get him off of me. He snapped out of it with me pinned down, and did not remember the past 15 minutes. He described the feeling right as he came to as 'rage'.