Why We Snap

Recently, an incident here at home involving Puppy Gus got my rapt attention. Early one evening my wife and I were relaxing in the living room and Gus decided he wanted Dad Ollie’s attention. To get it, he began barking – a sharp, piercing, aggressive yelp that he kept repeating over and over.


What grinch would pinch a puppy?

Ollie paid him no mind, but Gus’s insistence was getting on my nerves – each bark sent a shot of adrenaline rushing through my body. I told Gus, “No” several times using my Command Voice. Still, he kept it up. Finally, I snapped. I reached down and nabbed him by the nape of his neck and gave him a hard pinch. He squealed in surprise and pain as I scooped him up and summarily deposited him outside onto the back deck.

There was no thought or planned action on my part in this interaction. It was all reactive anger and frustration combined with a sudden urgent need to reduce the stress hormones rising to uncomfortable levels in my brain and body. If Gus was smarter and paying closer attention, I suspect he might have noticed some tell-tale signs of my mounting frustration – tightening jaw, color draining from my cheeks, constricted breathing. He would also know that this kind of response is quite a rarity for me. But that would have been little consolation.

Paying Attention to the Relevant Dimensions

After his own experience of similar sudden anger, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development neuroscientist Doug Fields began researching the phenomenon and uncovered nine specific triggers that hold the potential to make any of us snap. He wrote the book with the same title as this blog. It summarizes the reasons he thinks we snap. They’re remembered by the mnemonic: “LIFEMORTS” –

Life or Limb preservation – defending yourself against attackers;

Insult – someone saying something irritating or offensive about you;

Family – as a response intended to protect loved ones;

Environment – as a response designed to protect hearth, home or national borders;


Dr. R. Douglas Fields

Mate – actions orchestrated to keep a primary partner safe;

Order in society – responses designed to preserve the rule of law and to right social injustices;

Resources – actions taken to gain and/or safeguard possessions;

Tribe –defensive reactions intended to preserve group/tribe safety;

Stopped – planned or impulsive actions taken to escape restraint or imprisonment.

Most of these behaviors seem to come prepackaged with neural network development and are instinctively designed to keep the human species alive and well and capable of carrying on and bringing forth future generations. Evolution wants us to evolve. Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it if you look to our political process. Fields details how politicians and their campaign managers are masters of manipulating these triggers – especially the Tribe, Social Order and Environment triggers. We are better served using awareness of these triggers to help in uniting people in empathy rather than the way they are used in politics – to divide, alienate and demonize members of the “other tribe.”

Fields goes into even greater detail in how the brain may sometimes send false positives around these triggers. When that happens a person may snap, but just as suddenly recover and put a brake on their anger. Cognitive understanding of the LIFEMORTS triggers can be a useful tool for anger management – it can readily allow us to discern if something is really worth getting angry about or not. Or if what we’re perceiving or thinking is mostly an imagined threat or an actual real one.

Getting Help for Puppy Gus

All this is interesting and useful to know, but it doesn’t much help Puppy Gus. The work of helping Puppy Gus is actually mine to do. It was my neurophysiology that slowly increased its levels of stress hormones. My brain and body that sat frozen as Gus continued his attention-seeking barking.


Fatigued Adrenal Glands

My adrenal glands that silently ratcheted up the flood of adrenaline and cortisol – temporarily shutting down cognitive functioning – until the only relief available to me was the impulsive action I took.

To avoid actions like that, I believe, requires the lifelong practice of brain network-building, making the unconscious conscious and ongoing practice in learning to skillfully manage my adrenal glands. Somewhat later, while reviewing the incident, I realized that Gus had actually triggered a childhood memory of Buster, the yappy rescue dog my mother got to replace one that ran off. It was a dog I used to beat with a belt in an unguided, unparented attempt to channel childhood anger, frustration and rage. 60 years later, in deploying only a quick pinch instead of a belt to Gus, I seem to have made some small amount of progress in neural network-building. And the work goes on.


There’s a growing body of research evidence that suggests that a day full of digital distractions is less than optimal for the health of my body and my brain. One reason, as neuroscientist Daniel Levitin points out in his book, The Organized Mind, is that distractions are energy hogs in the brain. Every time I shift my attention from one task to another, from thoughts on one topic to thoughts on a different topic, extra energy has to be expended.

texting-while-drivingSo, for example, if I’m driving to work and I’m shifting back and forth from the road to the iPhone screen while I’m texting over and over and over, by the time I get to work, I will have expended much more energy than if I had simply kept both hands on the steering wheel and paid full attention to the road in front of me. I very likely also decrease the probability of running into bicyclists or telephone poles.

Neuroenergetic Theory Abides

But this additional energy expenditure has other consequences. Deliberative thinking is hard work. Neuroenergetic Theory argues that the sequence of the fuel injection process that brain cells use in thinking is adversely impacted by multi-tasking. Once brain cells we use for paying attention to one task complete a fueling sequence, they are inoperative and must undergo a refractory period until they can bring more fuel on board. During that resting phase these brain cells are subject to being overridden by other cells in the brain which can end up calling us off in the direction of any number of alluring distractions. The more we multi-task, the more easily we are subsequently captured by distractions. Whatever we pay attention to and how we pay attention to it, tends to increase. What to do?

Be Pokey, Mon

Slow everything down. What’s the rush? Rushing is stressful. Here’s an interesting study from researchers at UC Berkeley. What they’ve found is that stress causes proteins to misfold in a cell’s powerplant – its mitochondria. Misfolded mitochondria proteins cause a cell to rapidly age and then die. Slowing down processes in a single cell’s mitochondria allows for the proteins to begin to fold correctly, restoring the cell to full health. Might slowing down work to benefit a preponderance of the 37.2 trillion cells that make up the organism called … you!

Pod 2 Interior

Inside a God Pod

There’s only one real way to find out, right – experiment. As I age, I find slowing down and being mindful becomes increasingly important if I don’t want to have the frustrating (and sometimes frightening) experience of going through large parts of my day while not being fully aware and awake in any present moment. One area where I find it particularly beneficial, for example, is when I’m working on a God Pod and I place a chisel or a chalk line down, I deliberately pay extra attention to the placement. If I don’t mindfully mark the placement, I’ll spend an inordinate amount of frustrating time searching all over the place for the tool.

Marky-Marking What Ails Me

Another way I have learned the importance of slowing down and being mindful is again, when I’m working on a Prayer Pod (or cutting and splitting firewood), to deliberately notice when I bang a shoulder into a roof rafter or knock a shin into an alder round. By mindfully marking the experience, a day or two later when I’m feeling the pain from the incident, my mind doesn’t automatically assign a cancer or leukemia diagnosis. I remember: “Oh, right. I banged myself there yesterday.”


Bodhi’s got mail

At earlier times in my life, I used to be an insurance company’s profit poster boy. While mostly good at avoiding auto accidents, I would acquire speeding tickets that kept me right on the cusp of having my license suspended year after year. With those tickets came higher insurance rates, of course. Even when it was pointed out to me that on a trip of almost any duration, the most I would likely shave off my time would be five minutes or so, my nervous system seemed to just want me to go fast. I tend to walk fast, as well.

Nowadays, however, I have made the choice to deliberately slow down. Over here on Whidbey Island, the speed limit in town is 25 – strictly enforced. Neighbors take down speeder’s license plate numbers and notify the police. And most of my walks now have dogs with me on leashes who demand that we stop and pick up Pee-Mail every 20 or 30 feet as we meander the pathways at the dog-park. And you know what, these days my brain, body and I are deeply appreciating that “Bodhi’s got mail!”

Finally, for your leisurely, mindful enjoyment – another Enchanted Loom, this one on The Emotional Brain.

While the adverse consequences of abandoning or neglecting children is easy to observe and document, much abandonment and neglect takes place daily in the world in ways we often don’t pay much attention to. And even if we did, skillful ways to address and remedy such actions so that further separation and suffering don’t ensue, are rarely a part of our relationship toolbox. Here are ten-plus-one not-so-subtle common occurrences that I’ve observed over the years. If you consider that a primary driver of neural network enrichment is the result of give-and-take interpersonal, in-the-flesh feedback, what might we inadvertently be doing to our brain with these small-picture behaviors?

  1. smartphones_in_bed

    What could possibly be so interesting? And who’s in the bedroom taking the picture?


    Proximate Separation– Two people in close proximity who have little direct emotional or energetic exchanges going on. When I was growing up it looked a lot like a husband and wife both reading the newspaper over the breakfast table. Nowadays, it looks more often like the couple in the picture on the right.

  2. Excessive Attention to Smartphones/Laptops– In a February, 2016 poll, nearly 200 million people in America own smartphones. That’s a lot of attention being paid to an electronic device that in earlier times was being paid directly to other people. What’s clearly not being attended to is how this attentional shift might be adversely impacting our capacity to readily regulate arousal states when we do actually have to interact with other people. According to Tallie Baram, a brain researcher at UC Irvine, this significant increase in screen time is having an adverse effect that is going to be showing up increasingly not only in ourselves, but more importantly, in our children’s healthy brain development.
  3. Sexual Time Travel– Basically, not loving the one we’re with. Running off in our minds (and heart) to be with an imaginary someone else, in an imaginary somewhere else. The intimate energy experience with someone who’s fully present and responsive is qualitatively different, in case you aren’t aware of it.
  4. Workaholism– There’s no work in the world that can sustain interest 60-80 hours a week, month in and month out. I don’t care what it is. When more than half your waking life is spent “on the job” it smacks of avoidance behavior or some kind of a brain organized in an addictive manner. Or worse – The Disease of Being Busy.
  5. Non-Contingent Communication– You know the feeling: you’re having a conversation with someone and they’re lost in the space inside their head; or they frequently non-sequitur their way onto other topics, usually having something to do with them. Or you’re in communication over the phone or the computer and the person on the other end has their keyboard clacking away the whole time.
  6. Not Keeping Our Word– When our word is law, when what we say we’re going to do is what we end up doing, we become supremely trustworthy. liar-liar-mdash-is-it-ever-okay-largeNot just to others, but to ourselves – to Witness Consciousness – our inside Sentinel who’s watching every move we make and then generating narratives about who we are and what we’re capable of, for better or worse. When we don’t keep our word, it’s usually for worse.
  7. Relationship Unfaithfulness– With every brain on the planet either consciously or unconsciously wanting a “Yes” answer to the question: Are you there for me? Can I count on you when the chips are down? Will you be there to help me through the inevitable Dark Night of the Soul? – unfaithfulness in relationship answers this fundamental need with a resounding “No.” Expect to be repaid in kind.
  8. Inebriation– There’s little worse than trying to have a healthy, committed lasting relationship with someone who’s frequently in a dissonant state of consciousness. You and they would be better served if each of you did the hard work of trying to heal the broken heart needing to be so often medicated. Medication is not integration.
  9. Multi-Tasking– Time and again research has shown that when we try to do multiple things at once, we do all of them less well than if we focused our attention on one person, place or thing at a time.
  10. Unskillful Listening– We’re all challenged by this sensory experience at some time or another. The primary reason is that skillful listening is just that – a skill. Skills take practice. And we don’t get better unless we know what to practice and what we need practice on. When it comes to this skill, most of us don’t know what we don’t know, and no one has impressed upon us just how important this skill is and how difficult it is to truly master.
  11. Self-Abandonment– In ways large and small. From the promises we make to ourselves and others and fail to keep, to the many ways we don’t take care of body, mind, brain and spirit. We may have been abandoned by others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do the work required to be faithful and true to ourselves. Feel free to start with … The Two Perilous Questions.

Here’s a free series by one of my favorite neurobiologists, Stanford professor and MacArthur Fellow Robert Sapolsky. If you put in the time to listen to this series of 25 lectures, I guarantee you will know enough about your brain and body to be able to apply it in creative ways across many diverse areas of your life. I recommend watching in 15-20 minute increments. While Robert’s an extremely knowledgeable and skilled researcher, he’s clearly never studied effective teaching methods for best delivering large amounts complex information (So much to learn and so little time). But if you put in the time, you’ll know the ins and outs of Human Behavioral Biology as if you actually went to Stanford!

But before you jump right in and begin binge-watching, you might first want to check out this week’s Enchanted Loom featuring Yale neurobiologist Eliezer Sternberg’s book, My Brain Made Me Do It.

1. Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology


2. Behavioral Evolution I


3. Behavioral Evolution II


4. Molecular Genetics I


5. Molecular Genetics II


6. Behavioral Genetics I


7. Behavioral Genetics II


8. Recognizing Relatives


9. Ethology


10. Introduction to Neuroscience I


11. Introduction to Neuroscience II


12. Endocrinology


13. Advanced Neurology and Endocrinology


14. Limbic System


15. Human Sexual Behavior I


16. Human Sexual Behavior II


17. Human Sexual Behavior III & Aggression I


18. Aggression II


19. Aggression III


20. Aggression IV


21. Chaos and Reductionism


22. Emergence and Complexity


23. Language


24. Schizophrenia


25. Individual Differences





If reading this blog every week is worth any bit of your time, listening to this podcast is worth reading a year’s worth at least. PodcastAs I was listening to it, at least 100 different people came to mind whom I was excited to send it to. Finally, I just decided to bump the blog I had planned to publish and offer this up instead…

The Most Inspiring Podcast

I’ve Ever Heard

Sincerely yours,


When people somehow discover my early beginnings were less than optimal, they often marvel at what I’ve been able to accomplish over the course of my life. I don’t. I consider myself extremely lucky (I can’t tell you how many times I narrowly missed dying – when you’re holding a rifle that you’ve just discharged near a playground, and 6 New Haven cops are advancing on you with their guns drawn, and you’re not shot dead 12 times over, luck is clearly playing a part). I also know that scores of people have been uncommonly supportive of me – they have answered The Big Brain Question in the affirmative over and over and over.

My study of brain science over the last 13 years has repeatedly convinced me that The Big Brain Question is something our neurophysiology begins to put together non-verbally before we are ever born. It forms the question in response to the way our brain and body shifts hyper-arousal states to tranquility and calm through processes that diminish and discharge stress hormones. After birth, in the best of all possible worlds, we have parents who learn to help us do that so our little body doesn’t have to constantly go it alone. At some point, other family members and people in our extended community make their contribution. They all together form a network designed to let us and our brain know that we are loved, that we matter, that people can care enough to calm us.

Many popular songs speak to this basic neurobiologically-based question. I’m convinced that’s a big part of what made them so popular. Here are 20 that I’ve managed to come up with. I’m sure there are untold more. If you’ve got your own favorite song that positively answers The Big Brain Question, feel free to post it below. Here’s my list as hyperlinks so you can give a listen.

  1. Bridge Over Troubled Waters – Simon & Garfunkel
  2. Will You Be There – Michael Jackson
  3. Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
  4. I’ll Be There for You – The Rembrandts (Friends Theme)
  5. Stand By Me – Ben E. King
  6. Good Enough – Sarah McLaughlan
  7. How Did You Find Me Here? – David Wilcox
  8. Everything I Do, I Do It for You – Bryan Adams
  9. Because You Loved Me – Celine Dion
  10. I’ll Stand By You – The Pretenders
  11. You’ve Got a Friend – Carole King
  12. Love at the Five and Dime – Nanci Griffith
  13. Where’ve You Been – Kathy Mattea
  14. Love Me Tender – Elvis Presley
  15. I’ve Got You Babe – Sonny & Cher
  16. Now and Forever – Richard Marx
  17. You Raise Me Up – Josh Groban
  18. Something In the Way She Moves – James Taylor
  19. Never Stop Jackson Browne
  20. You Are Not Alone – Michael Jackson

Several years ago I seriously injured my finger in a logging accident. I put some antiseptic on it and bandaged it up, but after a few days it began to give off the stench of dead rat. So, with little fanfare I went to my computer and did a Google search on “stinky finger.” I promptly learned that the damaged tissue had become necrotic – it was dying from lack of blood supply and other nutrients. The effective Google-delivered remedy: wrap it overnight in a wet tea bag. Lo and behold, it worked! The tannic acid in the teabag apparently has properties that have been known for years to remove dead skin cells (It’s also good for shrinking hemorrhoids!).

tea1Good for What Ails Me?

And now, a confession: I use Google to research a wide variety of medical conditions my brain makes up stories about while trying to convince me they are all lethal and preordained to kill me. Most recently: sciatica, sinus infections, peripheral neuropathy, folliculitis and hives. Turns out that even though a statistically wimpy number of people have actually died by complications from all of these conditions, I’m unlikely to. So, I’ve probably got probability on my side. I’ve also got culture, since I’m joined by more than 84 million other Americans who use any of the hundreds of search engines and meta-search engines currently available online to do research and spare us from dizzying trips down the rabbit-hole that is Corporate Medical America.

However, there’s a certain kind of anxious urgency I notice about these kinds of remedy searches. What I mostly want them to do, and what they generally do accomplish is … they calm me down. There’s something about being able to name a condition – say idiopathic urticaria (hives) – and get the sense that it’s not going to be the seminal event that begins my end-of-life trajectory – that brings reassurance. I can relax and actually enjoy the scratching and the temporary relief it brings.

Digital Hypochondria

There are other problems in using the internet to self-diagnose of course. One is: there are many more listings in search engines for serious and weird diseases than there are for things like hives and the common cold. Search long enough and I’ll eventually find sufficient link-bait to convince me that the itchy welts on my skin are the way my personal, unique strain of brain cancer just happens to be presenting! Not all that good for calming what in reality actually ails me. I too often find myself with the overwhelming impulse to research any and all symptoms of other related conditions and induce in myself a state of medical-induced anxiety – cyberchondria!

cyberchondriaAnother problem: I don’t know what I don’t know. That’s called … ignorance. Or my new favorite word for it: nescience. One way to overcome nescience is to become informed, but probably not by relying solely on search engines. In the old days, a better way to dispel nescience with respect to what ails us might be to actually consult with a doctor. The only challenge with that is these days doctors are super meta-busy doctoring. If you’re a neurologist, for example, with a full 60-80 hour a week practice, you don’t have time to stay even a little bit current with the 300,000 peer-reviewed neuroscience studies published every year! Who does? No one.

What to do? Here’s one suggestion – form a doctor-patient-advocate armada relationship. No one will be more motivated than you and your circle of friend”ships” and caring community members. Ideally there’s an Admiral who can be the WICOS (Who’s In Charge of the Ship?), directing every aspect involved in research and treatment. There are boatswains to do the actual scouring of the current literature; a sailor who’s “A-J Squared Away” to review it and curate it; a Chief Petty Officer to summarize the most relevant studies; a deck hand to arrange for effective treatment, medicines and non-medical needs; a Bridge Commander to schedule all the various appointments and followup needs…

Are you getting the feeling that it truly takes a Navy Seal Team to manage an illness these days? Well, don’t fret about it. Enjoy this Enchanted Loom featuring Dr. Dan Siegel instead.