Aggression Circuits

As mammals, human beings come hardwired with neural pathways that developed in response to constant interactions with their immediate environment. These “circuits” are the result of thousands of years of evolution, and they enable all mammals – humans included – to survive and flourish within a highly dynamic setting. Some of the most primal of these circuits involve mammalian aggression, and they roughly fall into three categories:

1. Rage circuits
2. Predation circuits
3. Play circuits

Lower mammals such as dogs and cats have much “cleaner” circuits than humans. In other words, mammals with less advanced brains tend to have much more distinct separations between their aggression circuits than humans do. I’ll illustrate this with a common example.

Let’s say you’re walking your dog in the park and you encounter another dog owner. Suddenly, as you pass each other by, “Fido” and the other dog erupt into a fight that seems to arrive out of nowhere. That’s the rage circuit in action. It’s an immediate, short-burst, but highly intense form of aggression that’s characterized by a highly aroused emotional state. The neural pathway involved is primarily confined to the limbic system, the emotional part of the mammalian brain. It’s difficult to explain exactly what triggered Fido’s rage circuit because there’s nothing “logical” about it. Something just pushed Fido’s “hot buttons” and off he went!

Shortly thereafter, Fido sees a squirrel climbing down a tree onto the grass. He suddenly becomes very quiet and very focused while he begins to slowly approach the unsuspecting rodent. That’s the predation circuit in action. It’s characterized by a low level emotional state that’s accompanied by a premeditated approach to attaining a specific goal (which in this case is a squirrel sandwich). The neural pathway that’s “lit up” here is highly active in Fido’s forebrain, hence the low level of arousal and the highly calculated approach. In layperson’s terms, Fido is exhibiting “cold blooded” aggression that’s highly outcome directed and characterized by more cerebral motivating factors such as territoriality, competition, possession, and accomplishment.

Finally, you decide to entertain Fido a little later on by having him chase and fetch a Frisbee. He’s clearly enjoying himself, but you make sure you place some limits on this activity because sometimes Fido starts playing a bit too rough when he gets all “riled up.” This is the play circuit in action. It’s a form of aggression that’s characterized by a much higher level of emotional arousal with a slight outcome focus – but without all the premeditation and competitive aggression. In short, it’s a spontaneous and high-energy form of aggression that’s not activating a “fight or flight” response.

The key here is to understand that, as mammals, we also come hardwired with these neural circuits.

However, there are some important distinctions between our aggression circuits and those of Fido and his ilk. The most significant factor involves our highly advanced forebrains, which present a peculiar dilemma for us when it comes to managing our aggression circuits. On one hand, we can usually consciously “override” our rage, predation, and play circuits if necessary. However, our more complex brains often prevent us from being able to make clean distinctions between these particular emotional circuits.

In other words, while we humans can often manage and control the levels of intensity of our aggression circuits, it’s much more difficult for us to separate them from each other. And in most people, the predation circuit is constantly “switched on” at a low but chronic level.

This explains why many people come home from work and have trouble “switching off” the levels of arousal and anxiety that have accumulated throughout the day (predation circuit). So they sign up for a yoga class, a triathlon training group, or a volleyball league to get some “balance” in their lives, only to discover that their predation circuit is still activated during these activities.

And the results are fairly predictable. An individual who cannot “lighten up and have fun” (switch on the play circuit) during any of these activities might find himself or herself becoming irritated or impatient with others who aren’t “taking things seriously” (predation circuit). In rare cases, they may even snap at other people for no apparent reason (rage circuit).

Bottom line – learn to switch off your “predation circuit” and switch on your “play circuit” in those areas of your life where tension and competitive aggression are counterproductive (i.e. hobbies, leisure, recreation, relationships, etc.).

In other words, train yourself to lighten up in those areas of your life that warrant more fun and playfulness. Just remember not to get too “riled up,” though, or you might just get a rolled up newspaper across the nose…

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