Rage! When Someone Gets Angry, the Play is Over

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Photo © Thomas Espinosa

Last week, I wrote about the fact that all young mammals play, and that a typical play session ends after about twenty minutes, when someone gets mad or someone gets hurt. That's what happened when I played with this Siberian silver fox—yes, this one, photographed by my nephew Thom. After a careful approach that the fox received happily, and some moments of very gentle communion between me and her, I'd advanced to teasing and flicking my fingers in the "now you see it, now you don't" way. The mood shifted suddenly, and before I could say sorry, my middle finger knuckle had been sliced to the bone by some very sharp little teeth. This is how it goes. A self-protective flash of rage changes the dynamics. Something I did, or even something in the environment, caused that fox to feel danger; and in an nth of a moment, the entire mood shifted. The fox and I parted, me to nurse my bloody paw.

One thing I notice about rage—in myself and in animals whom I observe—is that its nature is to flare up suddenly, and to change the social dynamic that is in operation. Rage is closely related to fear, in that both rage and fear tell us that something isn't right, causing us to change the dynamic, either through fight or flight. Look at the picture below: the zebras in this photo that I took in Africa were grazing peacefully together until suddenly, in a shift of muscles and a flash of teeth, they weren't.

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Rage is one of the seven foundational affects that all mammals likely share, according to Jaak Panksepp. To be fair, even in something as short as a blog post, rage has to be distinguished from anger in general, from conflict and competition, and from complex emotions that are related to it and perhaps derive from it, like jealousy. Rage is that spark of pure raw aggressive and self-protective energy that is sudden, confrontational, and dominating. It is the fight aspect of fight or flight, and it is sparked in the brain's amygdala, the same location as the intense fear or flight response. Humans are born with brains that are organically mature but are not yet hooked up. But in humans, the amygdala is one of the first brain systems to operate. It functions at birth, and it's what makes that baby scream in rage when she needs something. She can't get it for herself, and so it really is an emergency. She will bloody well let you know that it is. She changes the social dynamics of her world, and she learns that she has the power to change social dynamics through rage.

Though all mammals share this fundamental brain and nervous system wiring for the experience and behavior of rage, some animals are more successful in their expressions of rage than others, and these ones tend to become dominant in their groups. Not every animal within a species majors in rage, but we all know what it feels like. It's a good thing we're not all equal, because if we were all equally good at rage, it would be an even madder world than it is. But nature has discovered a range of social strategies that allow for more social niches, and more kinds of success for more beings.

Next week, another strategy. . . .