PREVIOUS: Anger & the Brain (part 3)
ANGER on the brain
A normal amount of anger is necessary & appropriate to function well in personal relationships & in the outside world. The brain processes anger as stress, so it prepares us for the eventuality of fight-or-flight, by elevating blood pressure, cortisol, serum glucose levels etc. A certain level of arousal is vital for efficient remembering, but when it’s too high, (as when we’re very angry) it seriously diminishes the ability to concentrate, making it hard to remember details of really explosive arguments.
● The orbito-frontal cortex (OFC), the lower part of the prefrontal lobes, integrates sensory information from various other parts of the brain, such as weighing the value of reward-to-action, combining sensory input that turns taste into flavor…. Damage to the OFC can result in addictive behaviors (over-eating, gambling…), so that the immediate thrill of a vice is chosen over the greater rewards of health & stability. And changes in this area can distort our understanding & interpretation of sensory experiences, which in turn distort how we act when angry.
● Researchers at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Calgary discovered that one of the effects on the brain of anger is that neurons in the hypothalamus can become compromised. Normally these neurons receive chemical signals that prompt them to either switch on or off. Neuro-transmitters produced when we feel angry interfere with these functions, jeopardizing the brain’s ability to slow oneself down, by blocking the growth of new neurons & causing the death of existing neurons – leading to depression, memory impairment & learning problems.
“Happiness Hormones” are mono-amines, the main neurotransmitters (how neurons transfer an impulse between them over a synapse) associated with a variety of moods playing a vital role in feeling thinking & acting, animating the brain. When they are up & running correctly, they produce a sense of well-being.
Serotonin, involved in emotion & mood, & keeping aggressive social responses in check. When low it’s harder to control our reactions when feeling angry
Dopamine is released to achieve something good or avoid something very bad. It determines how angry we get when upset
Nor-epinephrin (nor-adrenaline) prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’’.
— Lower levels of this hormone is seen in depressed people
— Combined epinephrine & nor-epinephrine generated by anger – give a ‘rush’
SITEs: “Leadership chemicals” (scroll down) / “Meet your Chemicals” (cute slides)
BTW: Normally, when we get angry, frustrated or feel other ‘uncomfortable’ emotions – because of some real or perceived danger – the adrenals quickly release the catecholamines Dopamine, Epinephrine & Nor-epinephrine, (in a 80%-20% proportion). They prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’, so we can deal with whatever is causing the anger, but can also lead to acts of aggression in some situations.
● Interestingly, these same chemicals are also generated by fear. It’s one reason the FEAR & ANGER are directly opposite each other on the Plutchik wheel of emotions. (See post “Identifying Emotions, #1”)
Our various emotions are a specific mix of these 3 hormones. When they are depleted or out of balance they cause physical & emotional disturbances, including anger, depression, anxiety, obsessions….
Lövheim’s CUBE CHART shows 8 emotions placed at its extreme corners in relation to the 3 mono-amines, whether sufficient or depleted. It may help explain human emotions, psychiatric illness and the effects of psychotropic drugs. Anger is top left. (MORE…)
● The brain has plasticity, meaning that it can be physically & chemically altered by experience – for good or ill. Rats raised in a stimulating environment were smarter (more synaptic connections) than those raised alone in bare cages, with no chance to explore or to manipulate objects. The same can be seen in children. This plasticity means we can keep changing & growing our whole life long – provided we’re always learning / trying out something new. Simply repeating what we already know stagnates the ‘computer’.
• Throughout the brain, communication between neurons is strengthened by repeated exposures, becoming “hyper-responsive”, making ‘grooves’ that become the path of least resistance, so that eventually less of a ‘hit’ is needed to react. It’s why we fall back into old established patterns of thinking & behaving so easily, even when trying not to. However, if the grooves are made of positive experiences & pleasurable emotions, they allow us to feel comfortable, even happy.
• Brain-training happens in the amygdala as well. Repeated painful events cause it to form a chemical map labeling the emotional importance of each person/ place/ thing (PPT) in our environment, having ‘learned’ the level of danger that is to be associated with each one. Then drawing on stored info, the amygdala determines how we should feel about similar situation in the future – from neutral all the way to endangered.
This becomes our default position, even when the new ones are truly not dangerous. It’s why anyone living in prolonged trauma can develop OCD, PTSD, panic attacks, psycho-somatic illness, hypochondria…. CHART –—>
EXP: With enough bad experiences, eventually one can come to believe that – all men are scary, a raised arm always means a slap, being told to ‘wait’ always means a permanent NO, emotional intimacy in always suffocating, everyone will always screw you….
even when these things are rarely true in the present.
• The brain’s cortex also contains Mirror Neurons, which fire equally when we DO something as when we OBSERVE the same action performed by another. Observing sets off these neurons exactly as if we were doing the same thing ourselves. They are associated with or responsible for: empathy, imitation & learning, which can include mentally rehearsing a set of behaviors we’ve previously seen or heard.
SO: by being around an angry person – a lot – especially as a child, we learn to copy that behavior, just by watching. Also, when defective or dysfunctional, they are thought to play a role in autism, where the person is less able to “mirror” others. “Stress hormones affecting prefrontal cortex”
NEXT: Anger & the Brain (Part 5)