A neurobiologist reveals a chilling truth about how humans experience rage

Rage explodes without warning.

Overpowering judgment, compassion, fear, and pain, the fiery emotion serves one purpose — violence, both in words and actions.

While this human response has been vital to our survival since our species evolved, rage simultaneously puts one’s life at risk.

And it seems there is no escaping the rage circuit once it has been activated. So if rage is an automatic reflex, are you really in control of your fate?

That flare-up with your partner or child or friend or even a complete stranger can change your life in an instant, forever.

Despite the essentially peaceful lives most of us lead most of the time, killing is programmed into the human brain.

This is because, as with most animals, individuals in the natural world must be able to defend themselves and their offspring.

Moreover, carnivores must kill other living creatures for food.

These behaviours are hardwired in the brain, not in an area where consciousness resides but instead deep in the core of the brain where other powerful impulses and automatic life-sustaining behaviours (feeding, thirst, and sex) are programmed.

Each of these behaviours, just like the complex rage behaviour, is automatic once triggered. The question is, what triggers this deadly switch for violence and killing?

The power of rage gives a petite woman strength to lift a car off the ground to free a trapped child. It is the stuff that drives a US Marine, 180 degrees against all normal instinct, to run into a hail of bullets to save a comrade in jeopardy.

But sometimes this automatic lifesaving rage reflex embedded in our brain by evolution clashes against the modern world. “I just snapped,” the remorseful man confesses tearfully after having strangled his girlfriend in a fit of rage. Rage can ignite a crowd, resulting in sudden mob violence. The triggers can be small or large, individual or collective. The results can be devastating.

Hong Kong riotGetty Images/Lam Yik FeiRioters throw bricks at police in Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on February 9, 2016.

We tend to ignore this subject of snapping violently not only because we have become numbed to it but because this hostile behaviour is so disconcerting. On a societal and personal level, we are all too familiar with this seemingly irrational rage response. No matter where you live, the daily papers and news media are filled with similar instances where “normal” law-abiding individuals with no history of violence suddenly “snap” and attack violently. Often the rage is triggered inexplicably by the slightest provocation. There are countless horrific examples from the national news.

This rage response is not exclusive to men or to women, or to the aged or young. It is inexcusable and perplexing, but not incomprehensible. These incidents of snapping in rage merely seem incomprehensible because we have become numbed to them and we avoid the subject.

Psychopathic homicides, which are driven by mental illness, grab attention because these acts are rare. The commonplace blind rage attacks between spouses, coworkers, and complete strangers are the cause of far more aggression and violence than that caused by the mentally ill or psychopathic killer.

On a certain level we would rather dismiss snapping as pathology, but such thinking is wrong.

Adapted excerpt from WHY WE SNAP by R. Douglas Fields. Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2016 by R. Douglas Fields.

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