Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On Anger

I am now back in St. Louis working in my neurology/neuroscience lab. There is a lot of downtime when I waiting for western blots to get washed or brain lysates to get centrifuged so I have been doing a lot of thinking. Mostly about silly, abstract things. But if I didn't gleefully unload those ideas on my blog and inflict them on you loyal readers (I have quite a few by now), what purpose would this blog serve? Exactly.

So today's topic: what is the biological significance of anger? What is the neurochemical basis of it? In our neuroscience class we went on a whirlwind tour through various emotions and structures in the brain involved in mediating them, but this was more like window shopping. Despite the briefness of this tour, anger was never explicitly mentioned.

And that's weird. Anger is one of the most primal emotions/drives out there. It is rooted in human nature and ranks right alongside lust, hunger and hope. Yet it doesn't seem to serve any constructive purpose. Sure, cultures and creeds of all kind are replete with lores describing in detail the nature and consequences of wrath. Real history is full of examples of rage. But nothing useful has ever come out of this. In all these stories and real life examples, very bad things have resulted from anger.

Take a trip down your memory lanes and think of the last time you were angry. Cheeks a huffin' and puffin', steam blowing from your ears, veins popping left and right. In the moment that you are angry, you forget everything that is important. Everything that is vital. All your body's and mind's energies are focused on shouting at the person standing in front of you or shattering that vase by flinging it across the room. Three minutes later there you are, tear-stricken, your fists are clenched. Either you will be apologizing or spending the next week going through that argument over and over and over again in your head. Your other friends will have heard your side of the story multiple times. You probably realized you shouldn't have thrown that vase because it belonged to your grandmother and it was a precious family heirloom.

What an utter and regrettable waste of resources. A minute of anger just cost you a week. And that's if you are lucky. If you are not, your anger cost you a friendship or a family member. You may spent a lifetime trying to mend the rift.

Now this is not to say that arguments or differences of opinion shouldn't arise. It just doesn't make sense to me that anger, an emotion that seems to serve no constructive purpose, is the most common and universal tool to resolve these conflicts. We are almost driven to resort to anger. And I just don't understand why. It stands in way of rationality. 

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