How Hatred Becomes Us — A Neuroscience Based Empirical Theory
Disclaimer: This is not intended to be political (because both parties are fully capable of feeling hatred). Rather it is an empirical, non-evidence based neuroscientific theory of how our minds and psychology develop a sustained level of hatred. I welcome you to criticize it, reject it, criticize me, but what I would greatly appreciate is if the neuroscientists among you can help verify what follows.
The Mirror Neuron Gap
In the late 1980’s neurophysiologist, Giacommo Rizzolatti and his colleagues, discovered what later were to be called Mirror Neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys. They were first referred to as “monkey see, monkey do” neurons, because they seemed to be activated when monkeys imitated other monkeys (and even human) behavior. Further research demonstrated that they also exist in human beings and are thought to be associated with imitation, learning and empathy. Furthermore, it appears when they are dysfunctional that they may be associated with autism, because such individuals have problems mirroring other people (i.e. picking up social cues).
Based on my empirical studies, I extended the activity of mirror neurons into a term fully explained in my book, “Just Listen” Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone that I referred to as the Mirror Neuron Gap.
I posited that starting when we are young and dependent and continuing into adulthood, we are often unconsciously mirroring and conforming to the psychological needs and desires of others in hopes that they will demonstrate caring, compassion, empathy and protection in return.
When we do receive caring, compassion, empathy and protection in return from others, we feel safe, stress is manageable and because of that our minds feeling unthreatened can learn and even venture out of its comfort zones. As such the mirror neuron gap between what we’re putting out into the world vs. what we are receiving back from it is manageable. That is what learning and growth is about.
However, if over time, it feels as if we are caring and conforming more to the needs and desires of others than they are doing in return, a mirror neuron gap builds. Furthermore, perceived neglect, abuse, sarcasm, disdain, etc. greatly widen the mirror neuron gap in direct opposition to how compassion and empathy narrow it.
If the mirror neuron gap continues to become even wider, we become frustrated and depending on our ability to handle frustration, it begins to trigger our adrenal glands to put out more and more cortisol, often called the stress hormone. Cortisol is something that helps alert our minds and bodies that we are under stress and in danger.
When cortisol reaches a high enough point, it can cause a part of our emotional brain called the Amygdala to cause a shunting of blood flow away from our rational thinking upper brain into our emotional and “fight or flight” lower brains which become focused on survival.
That shunting of blood flow is referred to as an Amygdala Hijack, because it causes us to not be able to think and consider options. Instead it causes us to fight with aggression or flee with fear.
If fighting or fleeing stops working, a third option is that we can begin to freeze. When we freeze (think of deer in the headlights of a car), our anxiety mounts (because we can’t escape) and can cause us to become either panicky or shut down and depressed.
The more powerless and cornered and trapped we feel the more we feel just like a cornered animal, with our cortisol going through the roof. If we feel so cornered that it feels psychologically like life or death, we can cross over into rage. That’s not too dissimilar to a wounded animal being the most vicious, because it feels that the next injury will kill it.
That’s what the Howard Beale character (played by Peter Finch) felt in the iconic movie, Network, when he screamed out, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” and created a mass movement to do the same.
When Beale did that and made it okay and safe for others to do the same, and even worse, fanned the flames of their anger into hatred, the high cortisol crossed over into testosterone. Testosterone is the hormone found more in men than in women (but still exists in women) and is associated with aggression, hostility and when untapped, hatred. Unleashed it can also make previously powerless people begin to feel powerful.
As the testosterone continues to rise, it begins to cross over into adrenaline which can lead to an adrenaline rush. When you’re in the middle of an adrenaline rush you feel excited, powerful, invincible and because of that you love developing momentum which keeps the rush going. That explains why people who are in the middle of that momentum and adrenaline rush can’t stand to be interrupted or in any way thwarted.
As your high testosterone driven aggression and adrenaline driven excitement continues, it crosses over into a surge of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.
There you have it.
Previously feeling fight, flight or frozen, cortisoled up, amygdala hijacked and now feeling testosterone aggressive, adrenaline excited and powerful, and dopamined pleasure.
It’s easy to understand how you would resist anything that threatens to throw you into a testosterone, adrenaline, dopamine crash. And BTW, all three of those physiological chemicals are prone to abrupt crashes which can explain the extreme behavior in such individuals.
Because of the desire to keep the testosterone, adrenaline and dopamine surges alive and the desperate desire to avoid the crash off all three, people who are running on this neurophysiological activity will do anything to keep going.
And when anger isn’t strong enough to keep those chemicals peaking, we can cross over into hatred.
What can be done?
In all chemical reactions there is something referred to as the Rate Limiting Step. This is the slowest point in the reaction after which the reaction just takes off. It is also the best point to intervene to alter the direction and eventual outcome of the reaction.
The Rate Limiting Step with regard to frustration turning into anger turning into hatred and then violence is at either the frustration or anger stage.
The more frustration and anger we can tolerate, i.e. the more we can “take the hit(s)” from life without having to hit back, either at others or ourselves in suicide, the more we can resist tapping into our hatred, then rage, then violence.
How do we learn to take the hit without hitting back?
Much of this comes from our role models in the world. The more we can handle stress and frustration without becoming angry and certainly without becoming hateful, the better able are we to do that. The more those role models can demonstrate in actions vs. words, that self-restraint is not for wusses or martyrs, but instead earns you respect and trust* (because people feel safer around someone with a long fuse).
If however, our role models are more like Howard Beale and goad us on and fan the flames of our frustration and anger, it will be increasingly difficult to get the genie that is out to exercise self-restraint and go back into the bottle.
* Some people have said that John Wooden was the most respected person in the history of sports. It was not only because of his never to be equaled success when he coached the UCLA basketball team to ten NCAA National Titles. It was because he could take the hit without hitting back that caused players like Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to view their years playing for him with unequaled respect and reverence.