My parents and the other nice people who helped me grow up warned about anger, discouraging its expression or giving in to it with little acknowledgement of its usefulness when properly resolved, but they condemned hatred as just plain wrong. Our local paper, The Roanoke Times, on 4/15/14 had two stories illustrating the difference. The first one on page 2 reported a study investigating the link between blood sugar and marital anger. This seems to me a silly study about something interesting; I have known and lived with people who would become quite irritable when their blood sugar dropped and we know some of the neuropsychology there. This study measured the blood sugar of marital partners each evening for several weeks and then asked each to give a ‘report’ of anger at their mate by sticking pins in a doll representing that person. Their results were that people with low blood sugar put more pins in their dolls. They did not report any of the partners doubling over with a stabbing pain in some part of their body. Okay, the potential confounds there are deep and wide and I do not feel like crossing over. The devil is in the details.
The second article is on page 3 and it describes the history of the man accused of shooting 3 people outside a Jewish center in Kansas City. Wow, talk about a life of hate. Do we think his blood sugar was low? At times, sure, but his history illustrates how hate can be sustained over years if the person works at it hard enough. Emotions such as anger are appropriately fleeting responses to experiences. The feeling rises and falls and the person moves on to the next experience. Humans with our symbolic capacity have another option–we can construct mental situations, remembered or imagined, that then generate particular emotions. I think it is actually more complicated than that. We have our personal proclivities for certain emotions and at times our mind constructs situations corresponding to the right frame for that emotion to be expressed and then felt.
Sentient animals, like especially mammals, must be reality oriented in order to adapt and survive. We humans ignore this basic premise at our, and others’, peril. The Kansas City shooter reportedly self-identified with Nazis and worked at constructing and maintaining a reality commensurate with sustaining that particular brand of hate. Simon Baron-Cohen gives a detailed picture of what we know biologically about this phenomena in his book, The Science of Evil (more on that later perhaps). Hate is maladaptive in two very basic ways. As already implied, it is a feeling without end and that cannot be reality oriented. Further, such disregard for reality leads to stupidity and failure. The shooter killed people who were not the objects chosen for his hatred. The problem with stereotypical thinking is that it is wrong way more frequently than it is right. Not reality based. The second maladaptation is that hate overrides the basic function of empathy (and this is a biological action) which should lead us to understand the other person fully, to see the object whole as it were, and then on to compassion.
Baron-Cohen talks about a science of ignorant, even malicious non-empathic, non-realistic functioning not to negate criminal culpability but to encourage further understanding of how such phenomena come about and then to work to mitigate it. We have more than 150 years since Darwin and Wallace helped us find this path to understanding our biological selves. In the first decades of the twentieth century James Papez proposed the Circuit of Papez as the neurological substrate for emotions.
He focused on the hippocampus and the associated structures we now know as the limbic system. We also know that this circuit has more to do with memory and novelty than emotion but it was a natural mistake for Dr. Papez to make, given the research technology of his time, because the structure central to emotional valence, the amygdala, is next to the hippocampus.
And the amygdala is closely tied to the neuroendocrine system for stress response, including fight/flight, and this is certainly sensitive to blood sugar. Adaptive, well functioning animals have brains that are stable in energy, reality oriented, and empathic towards the other. Dr. Papez’s misconception helped us (well, Paul MacLean really) find a better understanding; that is how science operates. Unlike hatred, which runs itself and its animal into the dust. Our capacity to construct a different reality is a two edged sword, one edge which cuts destructively and rather indiscriminately and one which self corrects and follows into the future to find understanding.