The science of wrath

Sarah: Over the weekend I was angry several times. I was angry at my toddler for pulling all the toilet paper off the roll. I was angry at my daughter for failing to go to sleep at a reasonable hour the night before her 6th birthday (‘yes, I know you’re excited but I have presents to wrap! I have a cake to decorate!’). I was angry at my 7-year old son for yelling angrily at his sister for dobbing on him for hogging the TV remote.

It was only after attending The Science of Wrath event at the RiAus on Tuesday that I learnt that it was my dorsal anterior cingulate cortex which mediated my angry reaction to these occurrences.

As explained by Thomas Denson, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC – anagram for AC/DC, rock on) is the bit of your cerebrum which is activated when events in your life don’t match up with what you expected to happen at any given moment.

I expected the toilet paper to stay on the roll. Toddler spins the dispenser, it all unravels – PING, my dACC kicks in.

I put my daughter to bed. I expect not to hear from her again until morning. She comes into the living room 6 times. PING, dACC kicks in.

My son has the remote. He’s chilling out, watching his favourite documentary. Suddenly his sister and his mother are telling him that he must surrender the remote and watch some girly tripe for the next hour. PING, his dACC kicks in. PING, my dACC kicks in when rather than submitting peacefully, he yells “IN YOUR FACE!” at his sister, and pushes her away.

Turns out that differing degrees of dACC activation help determine whether you manage to shrug off an anger-inducing occurrence, or whether you progress to yelling, stamping or other more serious manifestations like violence. Interestingly, Tom has found that providing an energy hit like a nip of neat, sugary cordial to young adults prone to high aggression can actually allow greater activation of the dACC and reduce aggression following provocation.

So that was some of the neuroscience behind anger. The other presenters at the session were Andrew Day and Michael Currie, both of whom inspired the audience by recounting their work with angry teens and violent adults. Michael seemed particularly noteworthy for his creation of workshops designed to give high-risk teens the tools to use language as a way to express anger, and thus hopefully avoid an often catastrophic, angry future.

With this new knowledge fresh in my head, I commenced a new parenting approach. No, not provision of cordial. I had big plans to help my son express his anger by talking with his tongue rather than his fists. I explained to him:

“I went to a seminar which discussed teaching people to try and talk about being angry rather than hit people when feeling angry’.

He promptly looked me square in the eye, picked up a glove which happened to be sitting on the kitchen counter and threw it at me.

“What did you do that for?!” I spluttered.

“‘Cause when I hear the word ‘angry’, I feel angry”, he replied.

Stunned silence from me. I searched my brain for inspiration. Eventually, I come up with:

“Well, next time can you just say those exact words instead of throwing the glove first?”

“OK, Mum”.

See? Catastrophic future averted.  Thanks RiAus.

Postscript: Host Robyn Williams was charming as ever, although he did manage to activate the dACCS of a few tweeting and blogging audience members (well, me and @CaptainSkellet anyway) by suggesting that social media was akin to projectile vomiting information onto the web. Well, he is a grown-up after all….

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