Trump’s Victory and the Neuroscience of Rage

Pollsters, politicians, much of the press and public are dismayed by Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the presidential election, but not neuroscientists. The bewilderment arises from an attempt to comprehend the election result rationally, but rage, not reason, is what drove people to put Trump in the White House.

Emotions are powerful motivators of behavior. For most animals, emotion, not rational thought is what drives behavior, and this remains true for our esteemed species, self-christened as Homo sapiens—“the wise one.” But our decisions are not made solely by reasoning. In fact, in the most complex and momentous decisions we make we rely on emotion—gut feelings. Whom to marry, where to live, or even what entrée to select from a dinner menu, are decisions we make not by reason, but rather by how we “feel.”

We have emotions because we need them. They arise from an astonishing neural network that performs an extremely complex, instantaneous analysis of our situation and sets us upon a definitive course of action. To accomplish this, input from all of our senses streams into the brain’s limbic system to assess our internal and external state, constantly sifting the data stream on the lookout for danger. All of this information processing operates below the level of consciousness and rational thinking, because the enormous amount of information processing involved would overwhelm our conscious mind. We can hold no more than a pitiful string of seven digits in working memory on average, which is why the simple steps of long division requires a pencil. When faced with very complex situations, it is our deep brain threat assessment circuitry, not only our cerebral cortex, that most often moves us to action. Especially so when our fundamental wellbeing is at stake. But language arises from neural circuitry in the cerebral cortex, so the brain’s subcortical threat detection system does not communicate with words, but rather by using multicolored emotions. Each emotional feeling communicates clearly to our conscious awareness the specific type of threat confronting us: hunger, fear, loneliness, alienation, jealousy, frustration—a rainbow of infinite colors, but every one a brilliantly distinct hue of meaning.

Many in this country feel angry, fearful, and threatened. These feelings arise from perceptions of personal risk, social disruption and alienation, imminent threats of terrorism, and a chronically dysfunctional government. The pollsters got it wrong because the act of asking the question carries the implicit assumption of a rational explanation. But rage is not a reason. And emotions are not always accessible by self-assessment—“I’m not angry!” he screamed at her. People are angry, and the emotion of anger serves only one purpose—to prepare you to fight.

Fighting for all animals is risky, and so only a very few specific triggers will activate the neural circuits that launch us into a violent rage. These neural circuits of defensive rage are being identified, and with this new information the outdated “lizard brain” notion of our limbic system driving us to do beastly things is being replaced by a far more detailed understanding. Different types of threats activate different circuits of rage and defensive aggression in our brain. Most of these circuits are deeply engraved by evolution in the brains of our primate and mammalian ancestors. A mother’s instant reaction to respond with unlimited aggression if necessary to protect her child is a familiar example. The human brain shares this same neural circuitry with other animals, and that circuit is separate from the neural circuit that launches us into defensive aggression in response to another type of danger, facing an intruder for example. To understand this election you must understand the brain’s threat detection mechanism… Read More>>

Source: Scientific American

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