Anger, the brain, and the wisdom of crowds
Lot of anger out there. In the macroverse of national politics, post-election polling indicated that voters in Massachusetts were mad as hell—at Washington, at President Obama, at the pending health care legislation—when they sent a Republican to Washington to take Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate. The poll, according to the Washington Post, “underscores how significantly voter anger has turned against Democrats in Washington…”
In the more circumscribed microverse of Brooklyn, where I live—and specifically during rush hour traffic on Flatbush Avenue—I frequently find myself muttering deprecations, and worse, at double-parked cars, U-turning ninnies, and the people who make right-hand turns from the left-hand lane (which in a way is also what Obama has been accused of by enraged liberals). Like a satellite, back-seat outpost of my prefrontal cortex, my 11-year-old son has become a portable form of emotion regulation. His message is simple: “Chill, Dad.”
I’ve been thinking about anger a lot lately because it clearly influences both our larger public landscape and our smaller quotidian universe, and it’s clearly related to wisdom. As Michael Sandel’s recent book Justice suggests, a righteous kind of anger, which he calls outrage, can motivate us in the direction of social and moral justice (although a mountain of human misery, I’d wager, has been created by mistaking self-righteousness for true righteousness). And the central importance of emotion regulation in wisdom suggests that keeping anger in check is probably one of the greatest, and most difficult, achievements of a wise mind.
All of this got me thinking about how much scientists know about the neural location and processing of anger, and that curiosity led me to a surprising discovery: there hasn’t been much neuro-geographical research done on this most primary of human emotions, which has the power to start wars, end marriages, ruin friendships, and tear families apart.
Despite the power and ease of functional MRI imaging these days, hardly any studies have been mounted to look for the neural locus of anger, to see where it appears in the brain and how it gets processed. But during a quick Internet search, I did find a fascinating Australian study that came out in April 2009 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The paper didn’t get much attention at the time, and I don’t want to read too much into it, but it’s worth recounting here because of what it ultimately might say about the wisdom of voter discontent, to say nothing of everyday outbursts of road rage.
Like a lot of interesting fMRI experiments, this one is built upon a little deception. Researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, headed by Thomas F. Denson, told subjects their brains were being scanned as part of an experiment on “cognitive ability and mental imagery.” The real agenda was to insult them and make them mad while they were in the MRI tube, and then take a picture of their brains
Here’s how the provocation worked. While the subjects were in the machine, the experimenters showed them anagrams and posed questions about the anagrams. On three occasions, the experimenters interrupted the subjects as they attempted to answer and asked them to speak louder. During the third interruption, the experimenters, following a script, scolded the subjects, stating “in a rude, upset, and condescending tone of voice, ‘Look, this is the third time I have had to say this! Can’t you follow instructions?’”
Sitting in an MRI for an extended period of time is no picnic (I know); getting yelled at while you’re squeezed inside a noisy three-Tesla magnet would upset almost anyone. Sure enough, this anger produced a little bloom in the brain. (For those of you skeptical about MRI experiments in general, I plan to devote a post devoted to that topic in the near future; but if you can’t wait, I suggest checking out George Lakoff’s discussion in The Political Brain, and if you’re especially patient, keep an eye peeled for the upshot of Erik Parens’ project at The Hastings Center).
Specifically, Denson and his colleagues detected increased activity in a part of the brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. As I discuss in Wisdom, this is a prefrontal structure that seems deeply involved when we weigh an unfair or unjust situation, especially in a social context. In truth, the cingulate does a lot of things, so it’s dangerous—although, alas, typically journalistic—to refer to it as the “center of anger” in the brain.
But neural activity, and wisdom, is really about brain circuitry, and the Australians did something clever to explore how this anger got processed. They prompted subjects to think about what had happened in order to explore what they called “angry rumination”: how we mull over something that has angered us, and what effect that thinking has on our subsequent behavior. In this experiment, angry rumination was associated with activity in regions of cortex typically involved in “top-down” emotion regulation, including the lateral prefrontal cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex. The researchers also identified increased activity in brain regions associated with memory, such as the hippocampus, which contribute to rumination, as if we are searching our memory banks for similar instances of insult. Overall, the Australian study suggested that chewing over an anger-making situation makes one more prone to angry outbursts, possibly even violence, later on.
I was struck by a fascinating philosophical implication buried in the Australian data. As Denson and his colleagues note, the intensity of activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex correlated with the intensity of anger that subjects reportedly felt. But in addition to anger, the dACC is also associated with social distress and cognitive conflict-monitoring. It is, as some researchers have put it, a “neural alarm system.” It made me wonder if anger is rooted, at least in part, in the neural distress associated with a mismatch between expectation and real-time experience. In other words, if we’re expecting one outcome (being a good experimental subject) and experience a markedly different result (being told we’re screwing up the experiment), the cognitive dissonance—the neural upset—might be experienced as anger. As soon as expectation enters the formula of anger, you can see how it and its fellow traveler, entitlement, might play out in politics, relationships, classrooms, sports fields, any place where idiosyncratic expectation collides with a lesser reality.
There’s not a lot to go on in the current science of anger, but my hunch is that the whole thing is more complicated—and hopeful—than the Australian study suggests. Recent research by James J. Gross at Stanford University on emotion regulation, for example, also posits a central role for rumination, but with a kind of bi-directional switch. When rumination is negative—literally, chewing over a disappointment, reliving the anger, stewing in one’s juices—it becomes a form of depression, with debilitating psychological consequences. But when rumination is positive—and, according to Gross’s research, it can be—thinking about the situation that triggered anger can actually attenuate it, diffusing its corrosive impact and developing cognitive strategies for diluting its effects over time. Ultimately, these strategies cultivate an individual (idiosyncratic, if you will) ability to regulate emotion through cognition, which is precisely what research by Laura Carstensen at Stanford and Fredda Blanchard-Fields at Georgia Tech has shown.
If Gross is right, the Australian research on anger only tells half the story—but in any event, it’s a story very much in the opening chapters. The moral of this story is that unless our outrage is very high-minded and rooted in a desire for social justice, ala Sandel, anger is often emotion speaking without the inner ear, the inner balance, of cognition. For raw expressionism, for candor, perhaps out of necessity, such anger can be useful, bracing, even essential for the health of a relationship. But whether you’re voting on public policy or navigating an urban rush hour, letting anger guide your behavior is unlikely to produce wisdom in a crowd, but rather just a lot of unintended consequences, including accidents, electoral and otherwise.