Anger and “The Insula”

Last word.

I will keep this simple.  I’ve heard (granted from a historian Bill Moyers interviewed) that there’s a specific part of the human brain, located in the primitive, survival-oriented region that’s sometimes referred to as the lizard or reptile brain, where anger is experienced.  Let’s call it the insula (or insular cortex), and assume, for our purposes here, that feeling anger is one of its primary functions.  

When the insula is engaged for anger, all bodily engines are mobilized for fight or flight.   Cortisol and adrenaline, already coursing through the system, are ready to be released in a flood, as soon as the insula gives the command.  The ability to see nuance and make distinctions disappears, along with the ability to compromise.  All the person with the glowing insula can see is rage and the enemy in the upcoming battle.  There is a clear evolutionary survival advantage to this hyper-focus.

It explains why it seems impossible for an angry person to acknowledge certain things that may seem easily seen.  An angry person, told that his ignoring three requests for a comment was hurtful, cannot process that information.   You would think anybody who had been ignored several consecutive times would feel hurt, at least slighted.  You’d think it would be an easy matter to put yourself in the other person’s place and feel and express regret for not doing the decent, human thing for a friend.  If your insula is glowing, and you never learned how to calm it, it is actually biologically impossible to do any of those things.

First of all, you will say, I don’t remember ever having ignored you, so I couldn’t have done it on purpose and you’re the aggressor for blaming me.  Second, you say I ignored you but it’s quite possible I responded to you, I think I did, and you just, for whatever reason, maybe to feel justified in your irrational rage, blocked it out.  Third, I don’t even remember if I even read the thing you asked me to comment on, it made no lasting impression in any case, so what’s the fuss about?  Fourth, you’re a fucking hypocrite, I sent you something you never responded to, even though I realize now I must have somehow sent it to an address where it never reached you.  Fifth, I will need your unconditional surrender before any peace negotiations can begin. Blah blah blah.

The effective thing to say, if you meant to have a sincere and lasting peace, and friendship, with the other, would be more like:  

Of course I’d be hurt if you did that to me, anyone would.  A friend should not have to beg another friend for feedback on a project they had a long, animated conversation about.  This is especially true between two writers who have discussed one of their projects. Three separate requests should have been enough.  It’s not necessary to send me the email string to prove I never uttered a peep in response.  It was wrong of me to question your veracity on that, I was angry and feeling desperate.   I was an asshole not to get back to you, a jerk to insist you should have contacted me for feedback a fourth time, and a fifth if necessary, and I apologize.   It’s not as though I’m working two full-time jobs and am overwhelmed by work, I’m semi-retired.  I understand it was hurtful, I didn’t mean to do it and I hope you will forgive me. Would it help if I read it now and gave you some notes you might be able to work with?  

The insula, glowing, knows only how to continue the do-or-die fight for survival.  God bless the reptile brain, when fight is needed.  Hard to be friends with an angry reptile, though.  I speak from long experience.



The frontal insula is where people sense love and hate, gratitude and resentment, self-confidence and embarrassment, trust and distrust, empathy and contempt, approval and disdain, pride and humiliation, truthfulness and deception, atonement and guilt.

The NY Times printed this, on June 2, 2007.  (source)



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