The RAGE System: The Seat of Anger?

Can a dog be angry?

This is a question that Neuropsychologist Jaak Panksepp explores in his chapter on the RAGE system. Panksepp proposes the RAGE system as an ancestor and key ingredient for the human emotion of anger. So, can a dog be angry?

Dogs appear angry. If another dog eats their food they will snarl, approach the “rival” in a menacing way, and even strike out with their paws and teeth. We empathise with the dog and describe their emotional state as “angry”. But what is the dog really feeling?

In the 1930’s, serial brain zapper, physiologist Walter Hess, induced rage-behaviours in some otherwise mild-mannered cats. The Swiss Nobel-laureate placed an ultra-fine electrode into the Hypothalamus (a relatively deep part of the brain responsible for regulating hormones, basic functioning, emotional processing and other roles) to activate fury in the felines.

When Hess flicked the switch, the moggies turned murderous, biting and attacking whoever or whatever was in front of them. This same response has been seen in all other animals tested. Animals find such stimulation to be “unpleasant” as revealed by their avoidance of any places or actions that result in this region becoming stimulated.

Subsequent research has identified a series of nerves running from the Amygdala to the Hypothalamus then on to the Periaqueductal Grey regions of the brain. Panksepp calls this “circuit” the RAGE System. RAGE is capitalised to differentiate it from the common human usage of the word rage.

Interestingly, the RAGE system rubs very closely to the SEEKING and FEAR systems. Tellingly, fear and frustration are two emotions that commonly precede RAGE activation in animals. Hunger and fatigue are also likely to lead to the RAGE system becoming activated.

Human Anger

When we humans have our RAGE system electrically stimulated, we clench our jaw and report a feeling of intense anger. This is usually a confusing experience, as we are used to having an object on which to place the blame for angry feelings. Like animals, humans typically report this stimulated feeling to be strongly unpleasant.

When people experience intense anger, just as animals, we experience an urge to approach a wrongdoer and act with aggression. We are typically motivated to right the wrongs against us, but sometimes to get what we want or to protect the norms of our group.

Anger, but not RAGE

But we humans also experience a range of emotional experiences that we label as anger but that don’t involve the activation of the RAGE system.

As a psychologist who has imparted anger management techniques to many clients, I have always seen rage as the endpoint of the anger spectrum. On the mild end of this spectrum is frustration or annoyance. These feelings are often provoked by minor unexpected negative events or thwarted desires. Events such as missing out on the last treat, or being criticised unfairly, might provoke this feeling.

Irritation, resentment and the label of anger itself, might describe mid-level anger. These feelings are often felt toward a longer-term rival or irritant. For example, a work colleague who always speaks over you. This level of anger might be associated with passive aggressive actions however is not necessarily associated with the RAGE system.

Only when anger is very intense does it become rage or fury. This state of mind usually feels uncontrollable and is associated with aggressive behaviours.

Aggressive behaviours are those that seek to impose an individual’s wants or needs upon another. Aggression is associated with actual or threatened violence. Aggression can be evolutionarily adaptive as it can rapidly bring others in line with one’s own will. Aggression is associated with social dominance. Aggression serves the purpose of communicating a capacity to harm to the group. Think, for example, of eggshell-walking around a bully who has acted aggressively toward someone else.

It is this aggressive type of anger that is associated with the RAGE system.

So, Can a Dog Feel Angry?

Dogs, humans and all other mammals have a RAGE circuit, and what we all feel is probably fairly similar. We all experience this feeling as a negative. We have an urge to act, or do act aggressively, when this system is activated.

It isn’t clear whether a dog feels the spectrum of emotions that humans experience with anger; these milder emotions are not clearly linked to a specific neural pathway or an obvious set of actions. However, the weaker feelings of anger, that humans experience as precursors to RAGE, have links to the animal world. Under the conditions of urge-frustration, deprivation, competition and fear, both humans and other animals are vulnerable to RAGE.

Perhaps our non-verbal cousins silently seethe, just as we do.

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