thinking-woman-with-brain

What is anger and what drives our actions? Lessons from Neuroscience

Welcome to this special section on anger and conflict resolution. Over the next few blog posts, we’re going to explore the neurological and physiological responses of anger. We’re going to understand what it looks like and how to deal with it through a helpful analogy. This will serve as our introduction to the topic. 

In the next article, I’m Angry = I’m Scared, we’ll explore anger in more detail and discover how it is often a cover for something else. We’ll then learn practical tools to calm down our partners by recognizing its physiological response.

Next, in Model Behaviour to Influence Your Partner, we’ll discover mirror neurons and learn how to overcome our default response to it. Then, in We See the World Through Stories, we’ll learn about how we are not objective in understanding our surroundings. This has negative ways that affect us, but that we can leverage to make us stronger. We’ll learn how to mitigate our projections to help our partners get what they need from us at the moment.

Next, in Fights Arise to Fill the Void, we’ll learn how to build our emotional bank account to prevent fights from arising to fill in a lack of connection. Finally, in Prevent 95% of Fights, we’ll put everything together. We’ll learn about how we can prevent most fights through clear communication and setting limits.

Conflict is hard. But it doesn’t have to be.

Introduction

In this article, we are going to discover how emotions affect us through a helpful analogy. You can think about this analogy any time that you deal with conflict. This analogy was first described to me by Mark Manson in Everything is F*ked and adapted for this blog. We will discover new analogies that completely change the way we perceive conflict in later articles of this series. Stay tuned!

I want you to think of yourself as a car. The car represents everything that makes you, you. Where you go, the car goes. The car is you in this analogy. 

Now in this car, there are a driver and a passenger.

One of the people in your car is your feeling brain. This consists of all your feelings – your emotions. This includes when you feel angry, or scared, or lonely, or sad. When you feel like you want to eat another cookie! Or that you want to work out. Feelings. All the emotions that you feel through sensations in your body.

The other person in your car is your thinking brain. This includes all the ideas you have. For example, the thoughts that you use to solve math problems or decide which order to place the slides in your presentation. The thinking brain encompasses all the logic that we use in the day – our thoughts. I think that would be an unwise choice, for example, is something one could say. I think gold will outperform stocks this year based on this security analysis, another might. All this is in the domain of the thinking brain.

We can split these two passengers – the thinking and feeling brains – into two different locations of our brain. The feeling person in the car corresponds to the amygdala and its associated regions. The amygdala is like an almond-shaped structure located near the middle of the brain. This organ plays a major role in regulating our emotions.

When emotions are high in our body, we feel them in our bodies. That’s why we call them feelings. Have you ever heard someone say, “I felt like I was just stabbed in the back?” Emotions show up as physical sensations. We’ll learn how to use this to our advantage at the end of this article. Because emotions show up as physical sensations, it goes the other way too. We can use physical sensations to create the emotions they usually correspond to.

The thinking passenger in the car maps to the frontal lobe, our neocortex. Here is where many neuroscientists believe that logical thoughts and reason come from. This part is closer to the front of our hands near the forehead and makes up a lot of our rational thought.

Think of who you are and where you go in life as a car with a driver and a passenger. One is the thinking brain and one is the feeling brain. Who's driving?
The amygdala controls much of our emotions. It is part of the limbic system
The frontal lobe is where much of our rational thought occurs

Now imagine that this car is driving.

The direction of this card determines the direction of your life. Whenever you want to do something, it means that that car is moving to a certain place. This car is you.

Imagine that this car is everything that you are. To go to the gym, for example, the car has to move to the gym. To want to be close to your partner, the car has to drive close to your partner. To want to work on your assignment, the car has to move to the assignment, ext.

Out of the two members of our car, the logic and the feeling, who do you think is the driver and who do you think it’s a passenger?

Are you controlled by your thoughts or your feelings? Who has the higher say – your thoughts or your feelings?

Instead of telling you the answer, I’m going to guide you to it.

 

Who is the driver?

For a long time, people thought that it was a logical brain that was the driver. The assumption was that we do things primarily based on logical reason and thoughts. This is also what dominated advertising until about the 1920s. Following this era, advertisers started to instead target our feelings.

Back in the day, advertisements used to list practical descriptions of the item they are trying to sell and why it is beneficial. For example, an ad for a new pop drink might include:

  • This drink tastes sweeter than our older version
  • This drink has fewer calories
  • The drink has a stronger taste
  • The drink is lighter than the previous version so easier to carry

Do you see what is happening? It is listing the traits of the drink, encouraging you to use logic to buy it.

And then something happened. Advertisers started to instead target our emotions with phenomenal effects. The idea emerged that humans make decisions not based on thoughts but emotions.

Instead of saying that this product is lightweight and strong and a good price, they would instead say things like:

  • These people have friends and they’re so happy
  • If you buy this product, you’ll feel like these people who have good friends
  • This product will make you so cool
  • This drink will make you smile no matter what
  • This drink will make your partner love you even more

Do you get the message? Advertisers started to target our insecurities and say that their product would help us to overcome them. The ad flow would suggest:

  • You’re lonely
  • We get that you’re uncomfortable that you’re lonely
  • Look, these people could be lonely but they’re not
  • Because they bought our new drink
  • Buy this drink and you won’t be lonely anymore!

This represents the vast majority of advertising that we see today. When you want something, is it about the product? Or is it more about the way it’s going to make you feel?

Why don’t you do something?

Have you ever heard somebody say:

  • I just don’t feel like working on my assignment
  • I just don’t feel like going to the gym
  • I just don’t feel like calling you right now
  • I just don’t feel like getting out of my bed
  • I feel like binge-watching Netflix
  • I feel like finishing the tub of ice cream

Why don’t we do something?

Because we don’t feel like it. Our feelings run the show.

We do things primarily based on our feelings. Our feelings drive action.

The idea that feelings drive action was discovered around the second half of the 20th century. At this time, it was common for some people with schizophrenia or other brain disorders to get a radical surgery. This surgery made it challenging to interact with the feeling parts of their brain.

The idea was that reducing the emotional centres of people would lead fewer seizures to develop. But unfortunately, as you might expect, this had side effects. Big ones.

Many people who underwent these kinds of surgeries became indifferent to life around them. The difference between deciding to watch TV or going to their children’s birthday party became – hard. Too hard. Some people became couch potatoes and acted in a way we would perceive to be lazy.

 

The absence of feeling leads to the absence of action

This is so important to understand. The feeling brain is the driver of the car, and the thinking brain is the passenger. And what happens when you’re angry? It means that the driver of the car is flooring the accelerator and going completely off-road.

Do you know how people say that they’re losing control when they’re angry? Well, they are literally losing control. The car is being floored and heading off-road at a dangerous place.

When we are experiencing a lot of emotion, the feeling brain takes over. It floors the accelerator and the car heads off-road!

You recognize this in the way that people talk about anger as they experience it.

People say things like:

  • I just can’t take it anymore
  • I’m not in control right now
  • I don’t know what to do
  • I can’t think!

 

These are all signs that people, or at least their thinking brain, are not in control.

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman would call this an “emotional hijacking.” It corresponds to the inability to think while having lots of emotion.

This occurs because the amygdala is closer to the spine than the frontal lobe. So, it is closer to the connection with the rest of our bodies. Thus, it can intercept and react to signals before the frontal lobe can. And this is exactly what happens in times of anger. It’s going to take over. The feeling brain runs the show.

We have two problems: First, the feeling brain going to be very active in times of anger. This is because we experience a lot of emotion when we are angry. Next, it’s going to prevent the thinking brain from even engaging with our body properly. Why do we have this reaction? It is a must in a time of survival when we are in danger. This is because it allows us to react to threats early before they became too big.

For example, if a tiger was chasing you, it’s better that you first run and then realize why you’re running. Waiting to think too long before you decide to tense your muscles and run could get you killed. Cool, huh! Our bodies are so smart.

But when we have conflicts with our partner, this hijacking of the thinking brain is problematic. It means that the driver of the car, the emotional brain, is running the show.

We cannot connect to the passenger or try to build a connection with when the driver is taking the car off-road. We need to first deal with the driver, and then we can get to the passenger. This is so fundamental in any situation you ever deal with somebody who is experiencing a lot of emotion.

First, our hands move to our face to protect them. We open our eyes to take in more light. Our muscles tense, and we take a deep breath to oxygenate our lungs. Then, we understand why.

 

Connecting with the driver first

So often in times of aggravation or anger, we try to connect with the logical part of the brain, the passenger of our partner. We say things like:

  • You don’t really want to do that…
  • Why do you feel like that?
  • It’s not okay to say that, it’s not true!
  • You make no sense!
  • You’re talking garbage!
  • You’re not being rational…

 

We’re trying to use logic to connect with people when they are experiencing a lot of emotion. And this is ineffective because the logical part is the passenger. The passenger is not in control.

First calm down the driver, then have a conversation with the passenger.

How do we get to the driver? Through emotions. Through establishing feelings.

We need to allow our partners to share how they feel with us and feel understood. We need to give them the space that they need to vent, to get all the emotion out, and then to show them that we care. Once this pressure is released and they see that they’re safe, they can calm down and then we can get to talking to the passenger.

Some things you can say to help ease connection:

  • I’m with you
  • You’re not alone
  • I’m here, and I care
  • We’re in this together
  • You are so important to me
  • Let’s make a plan together on how to deal with this

 

Do you see what we did here? We are trying to build a bridge with our partners. To show them that we are there for them and that we care. That they are not alone, and that we are there as a team to help make things better.

What we are doing here is creating empathy with our partners. Sympathy would be something like, “oh my goodness I feel awful, that sucks!”, and can be helpful in many contexts. But empathy is often better for our partner as they then don’t have to worry about us feeling awful. It moves the focus away from us onto them, which is exactly what they need when they feel a lot of emotion. Empathy looks like the examples above: “I’m with you. We’re in this together.”

Another way to create connection is to let your partner feel close to you. I mean to physically feel close to you. We can trick emotions through the physical sensations that they cause in us. They go both ways. For example:

  • Actually being stabbed in the back often feels like being stabbed in the back emotionally
  • Actually being lost in a scary place, like the jungle, often leads to feeling lost emotionally. This could look like not knowing what to do with your life. You aren’t actually lost though, for you are safe and in your home. You just feel it.
  • Actually being close to your partner often feels like being close to them emotionally

 

Bingo! Bingo! Bingo!

In Hold Me Tight, Canadian psychologist Sue Johnson describes that the skin is the largest organ in the body with the most nerve receptors. It plays a huge role in the way we feel and experience the world – not just physically, but also emotionally.

By holding our partners in a caring way after asking their permission, such as by giving them a hug, we help them to feel safe and better. This all helps them to calm down. You actually know this by instinct about what to do when a baby cries.

What does a parent do often by instinct when a baby cries?

  1. Picks them up. (With your partner: you could hold them)
  2. Rocks them. (With your partner: you could lightly stroke the side of their arm or their cheek)
  3. Tells them, “it’s okay! I’m here! It’s okay!” (with your partner: say “I’m here. I’m with you. It’s going to be okay. We’re in this together)
  4. Smiles, to incite the baby’s mirror neurons to copy her smile, modelling what the parent wants the baby to do with their face. (With your partner: show compassion and care in your face and body language, instead of anger back). A whole blog post on this is in development
Our instinctual response to care for a baby when they cry carries through to when we're angry too. Holding, rocking and showing empathy are virtually universally calming.

The cool thing is, that the way a baby calms down is often the same way that adults calm down to anger too. It is a universal emotion that is experienced in similar ways across the world. And it also often represents a deeper issue, primarily an unmet limit or lack of sense of safety (more on this in the next blog post).

Once you calm down the driver and get it back on the road, you can connect with the passenger. First help your partner calm down, then clarify your own story or try use logic to communicate with them. This will only work once their car gets back on the road. First put out the fire, then say what you need to say. They won’t be able to listen to you when they are in emotional hijacking anyway.

 

Conclusion

Thank you so much for reading this blog post. I hope that you find it helpful and will be able to apply it to your relationship. In the next articles, we’ll be talking about how anger usually represents fear, and how to deal with that. We’ll discover more tools to deal with anger and more neuroscience. Then, we’ll learn how to prevent most fights in the first place.

I hope that this content will help to make your relationship more enjoyable, simple and fun. No matter what the relationship, there is often some form of conflict. But we don’t have to let it ruin the relationship. I hope with these tools, we will help to transform anger into an event that is understood, prevented, and used to uncover new things about our partner. With this, we can love them even more and stay together. Anger and conflict are hard. But they don’t have to be.

 

Additional formats

Prefer podcasts? We got you covered, wherever you like to listen. See these relevant episodes for more great tips and a different perspective:

 

Prefer Video? Check out our specially made video all about what ager is and how it affects our actions below!

This article makes me feel...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Exit mobile version