Anger, News and The Brain

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Have you reached the point where you’re afraid to watch the news?  I have.  The sight of one human being kicking another sickens me and every other sane person. However, anger, hatred, and violence are not new.  They are as old as mankind because they stem from primitive, tribal, and “us versus them” thinking.  And lest we think we’re above it all, primitive, tribal thinking occurs daily in neighborhoods, businesses, offices, universities, and political and religious entities around the globe.  No one starts out that way. As a poignant lyric from the World War II musical “South Pacific” reminds us, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Perhaps more people in the under-50 crowd can relate to a line spoken by Yoda in the “Star Wars” saga.  Cautioning Luke Skywalker about the true enemy, Yoda warns against fear:  “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, and hatred leads to the dark side.”

That’s not merely a memorable line from a movie.  That is profound.  Wherever we see evil, darkness, or violence, there is almost always some measure of fear.  People fear the loss of their money, their power, their identities, their rights, their beliefs, and their version of “truth.”  All of this sounds like a philosophical discussion until we consider the underlying physiology.

Appropriate fear, as part of the fight-or-flight response, is a survival mechanism.  It has helped humans and other species to endure for many millennia.  Learned fear originates in the amygdala.  Repeated, fearful stimuli, if unchecked by higher centers in the frontal and pre-frontal cortices, can rapidly lead to anger and aggression.  Simply put, a person can literally develop an angry brain.*  The result is an individual who becomes angry too easily and too often.  These people overreact to angry feelings, become aggressive whenever upset, and have great difficulty calming down.  Allowing oneself to simmer in a sea of angry thoughts, feelings, hormones, and neurotransmitters can rapidly lead to some horrible behavior.  We see it every night on the news.

Human physiology is such that anger and empathy are mutually exclusive.  Empathy, being a far more highly-evolved emotion, tends to inhibit anger and aggression.  And calmness is a pre-requisite for empathy.  Long, long ago, in our very own galaxy, someone even wiser than Yoda said, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  Perhaps someday the human race will catch on.  Until then, don’t go overboard watching the news.

After The Storm

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Elder Care, Homestudy, Psychology

By Mary O’Brien, M.D

A week of frightening forecasts.  Days of hectic, worried preparations.  Hours of terrifying wind and torrential rain.  Now nearly seven million Floridians are without power.  They, along with millions of other people, will begin the long process of recovery.  Despite their exhaustion and stress, they will follow in the footsteps of so many Texans and help one another.  People in Florida are not strangers to disasters.  They know how to re-build.

And who, among the rest of us, does not know someone in Texas or Florida?  Nearly every individual I know has family members, friends, colleagues, or acquaintances in one of these disaster-ravaged areas.  We are all interconnected whether we realize it or not.  Those of us in health care who are well-acquainted with suffering have an opportunity to set a good example for others.  Whatever each of us can do to help, now would be a good time.

Why Humans Need to Cry

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

“Stop that crying, young lady, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”  Most of us heard something similar growing up.  Certainly, there is a time and a place for tears.  However, what most of our parents, teachers, or coaches did not understand was how complex and profound crying can be.  The neurophysiology of crying is far more intricate than most of us realize.

Crying, to oversimplify greatly, involves the autonomic nervous system, the frontal and prefrontal cortices, the brainstem, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, amygdalae, vagus and trigeminal nerves, heart, lungs, facial muscles, larynx, pharynx, eyes, nose, and throat — as well as a host of neurotransmitters.  Anthropologists believe that, in humans, crying developed long before speech.  As tears begin to flow, we become choked up and speechless.  This may explain why crying reveals emotional states that are nearly impossible to express in words.

Clearly, tears can be shed in response to pain and physical distress, as well as to fear and anger.  All mammals experience fear largely as the result of having a limbic system.  Given certain circumstances, most mammals can express anger.  Grief, mourning, and bereavement can move people to tears at any age and in every culture.  Some animals such as dogs, elephants, and primates can manifest behaviors suggestive of loss or grief, but these animals’ ability to shed tears in response to grief has not been scientifically verified.  Grief and mourning have a cognitive component.

Human beings are social creatures.  Barring neurologic anomalies, humans can cry from the moment of birth onward.  The tears, vocalizations, and facial expressions of crying signal a universal plea for help and empathy.  Tears elicit a change in the mindset and behavior of the person who cries and in those who witness the crying.  It’s not rare for someone to “feel better” after a “good cry.”

The ability of humans to feel empathy and compassion for others has had a profound effect on culture and civilization.  Without these emotions, there would be no such thing as hospitals, orphanages, disaster relief, or volunteers of any sort.  The capacity for compassion is not present to the same extent in everyone.  Some individuals have no empathy or compassion at all.  Others are veritable saints.  The next time you feel moved to tears, don’t fight it.  It may just mean your humanity is still intact.


Trimble, Michael, Why Humans Like to Cry, Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brian.  Oxford, UK, University Press, 2012.