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The science of ANGER: Motivator & destructor

Updated: Jan 15, 2023

Introduction to the science of anger

The first part of this blog will cover the science of anger based primarily on the research of Paul Ekman and his book "Emotions revealed" of which I have also made a book review. Click here or on the image below to watch it.

The second part is based on my personal experiences treating many patients in my clinic in CPH, Denmark and my own inner journey. I do not agree with Klaus Schwab, the CEO of World Economic Forum, on much, but I do think he is correct in stating that "we must prepare for a more angry world". If knowledge is power then reading this blog should empower you :)

Table of content:

The facial expression of anger

A big part of Ekman's research is on universal facial reactions in humans including "microexpressions" which are very fast changes in the face almost impossible to suppress. His research plays an important role in interrogations and because of this it has inspired the tv-series called "Lie to me" where the main character is an expert in exactly this. In his book Ekman uses pictures of himself, his daughter and various people including local people from New Guinea where much of his research took place.

facial expressions of emotions
His daughter

Ekman divides facial expressions into upper and lower face primarily. Then he describes in detail what happens around the eyes, nose and mouth. As illustrated below by the main character of "Lie to me" the basic expression of anger is lowered and drawn in eyebrows, tightening of lips and jaw thrust forward. More on why later. As in poker (a former obsession of mine) it is important to "read" facial expressions and body language in clusters. People will for example do similarly actions with the eyebrow when concentrating or to avoid strong light and not because of anger. Don't be too quick to judge - which can be applied to life in general ;)

facial expression of anger
"Lie to me" is based on Ekman's research

The benefits of negative emotions

For the primitive part of our brain negative emotions serve important functions for survival. According to Ekman fear for instance helps to sharpen our attention and focus on impending danger while crying when sad helps to attract "tribe members" for help and support. Anger is often triggered when something is in our way, wether physical or imagined (a very important concept), as can be easily seen in "road rage" or whenever anything/anyone disturbs our preferred way of life. This includes the way up the mentally constructed social hierarchy.

Anger serves as a very powerful motivator to attack or remove the obstacle in our path. Just think of a mother protecting her offspring or the polarization among human beings created in 2020. To support this purpose our body is flooded with stress hormones such as adrenaline, jaw protrudes and clenches while apparently more blood is diverted to the arms and hands making us ready for physical confrontation. The primitive part of our brain reacts as if the fight is for survival, wether toiletpaper or a discounted flatscreen tv is in your hands, and therefore reacts accordingly - no matter how absurd it seems from a less primitive level of consciousness. The challenge with anger is that the onset is often very rapid and for some extremely strong.

Strong emotions and the "refractory period"

An important and big part of the book is Ekmans description of a so called "refractory period" that occurs after any emotion. The stronger the emotion the longer the refractory period. Understanding this phenomenon help to understand human interaction and communication greatly. It also enhances emotional intelligence and personal development. It is simple to understand but harder to apply the knowledge in real life - especially with anger. In relation to this topic it means that after the emotion peaks you are stuck in the emotional state for a certain period of time as it slowly fades (hopefully). According to Ekman if it does not fade, or is strongly repeated often, the emotion turns into a mood and eventually becomes a part of your personality.. "he is an angry person".

refractory periode of emotions
Payback time, bitches

People often times say or do hurtful things in anger that they later regret. Understanding the refractory period of emotions and observing it in oneself and others helps to improve communication and relationships. When a strong emotion is triggered we look for something in our surroundings to match up with that emotion. This is easily seen in the way angry people always end up fighting other angry people and both usually think the other is to blame. Becoming more conscious of what triggers strong negative emotions in oneself is a great strategy for personal development.

Another very important point is that we are not able to absorb or comprehend information that does not fit our emotion if it is very strong. This is why certain information, no matter how obvious or factual, can be rejected if it creates a strong emotional response (cognitive dissonance) - or the person is already very negative. It also helps explain why a neutral question to someone suffering from a strong negative emotion can trigger a disproportionately aggressive respons. If you are danish check out my video on this topic here:

Anger protecting sadness

"Don't shoot the messenger."

I assume must people have experienced or know about the angry reaction in someone who is delivered very bad news like a sudden death of a loved one. The anger is towards the news but is usually projected unto the messenger. The real challenge though is the overwhelming sadness. I have found with many patients, and in myself, that it is easier to be angry than it is to be sad. Especially when not alone and even more difficult if we are in the environment, or with the person, from where it originates.

My own interpretation of this observation is related with the science of anger. Being angry is in many ways a more constructive respons from a survival point of view than simply sitting around being sad, but unfortunately the motivation is usually towards destruction in some way. As just described in the previous part we should be wary of what we say and do in our refractory period but it does get us off our asses. For health and communicative reasons it is very important that we do not get stuck or branded by an emotion. When treating patients and myself it is often a surprise how good the brain is at compensating or hiding the big things stuck in our nervous system. Sometimes people unconsciously rearrange their whole life and behaviour in such a way as to not "poke" at, or be reminded of, a certain emotional trauma. If you wan't my help go here:

Anger and the threatened ego

A quote from David R. Hawkins I like and use on my frontpage is:

Ego is the persistence of animal instinct from an earlier part of the brain. The frontal cortex emerged later and allows thinking. However, the thinking is then used for animal goals […] We now have rivalry and the quest for domination via the intellect, rather than teeth, claws, etc.

What makes people angry is, in my opinion and personal experience, also highly related with their ego and sense of identity. Less ego = less reaction. If, for whatever reason, something tied to a person's sense of self is challenged it will be defended as if the attack/challenge is concerning life and death - because for the ego it is. The more we have invested in a certain belief the stronger the defense. For instance in my profession as a healthcare provider there are many opportunities to observe this especially since 2020. Changing paradigms creates this on a grand scale because some have their whole life and sense of self build around a certain belief or paradigm.

If you found this part of the blog interesting I recommend reading:

Thank you for spending time on my page. I hope it will benefit you and the human beings around you. Now go get angry so you can learn from it.. unless I pissed you off already ;)

anger quote buddha
Screw you, Buddha, don't tell me what to do.

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