8. STRESS AND AGGRESSION
During Paleolithic times the relationship between aggression and stress changed. I will next explain how we evolved anatomical overlays to the stress response along fronto-limbic tracts that widened the scope of social life by forestalling the bifurcation of stress into aggression. With hardwired modifications to the stress response in place, our understanding of threat itself changed, and our capacities for empathy and sympathy grew. I conjecture that these suites of behavior entailed enhanced facial recognition skills. As we let more signals in, more meanings could be shared. They increased our social tolerance, extended our capacities for natural belonging, and widened our curiosity.
Ernest Rossi's view of stress pathways
Fight or Flight
The stress response releases thousands of neural, hormonal and cellular signals throughout the body. They drive up the vital signs, stimulate the cardiovascular system and shift the blood flow from the periphery to the core. The stress response blocks digestion in favor of quick sugar metabolism, diminishes immune competence and tips the neural balance toward sympathetic and away from parasympathetic dominance. It postpones ongoing vegetative cellular functions in order to prepare the body for emergency action. In both stress and aggression, the arousal interrupts ongoing activity. They both make us turn away from a natural flow to acknowledge and usually tighten up against an intrusion. In both responses, the same enzyme, dopamine-beta-hydroxylase (DBH), catalyzes the conversion of dopamine to no-repinepherine. Up to this point both processes run on the same chemical cascade.
Jerome Kagan speculated that reduced sympathetic reactivity on this pathway promoted anti-social behavior. “Because DBH level is under genetic control,” he wrote, “it is reasonable to speculate that some extremely aggressive boys with low anxiety over asocial behavior have inherited a chemistry that makes it easier for them, given an environment that permits aggression, to become ag-gressive and antisocial.”1
The way we differ in the unfolding of this branching process shapes our aggressive natures. It makes us different from each other, particularly with regard to how we love, how we ponder our situation and how we place ourselves in the world – with what energy, resolve and resistance to intrusion.
How and when and for what purpose do stress and aggression diverge?
Usually stressors end before they rouse us to aggression. Consult yourself. When the stress hits, it comes on fast and usually quickly passes. We reconnoiter, understand and try to account for the stimulus. What you thought was a gunshot turned out to be a car exhaust back-firing. Knowing this, you go back to what you were doing.
However, in the instant of arousal, as it quickly passes, the germ, the first possibility of an aggressive response stirs. The body takes on a posture of vigilance during this period. And vigilance is the outer face of the inner realization that “this interruption matters”.
The longer the person stays vigilant, the surer he or she is that something important is at stake, and the more seriously the body prepares itself for action. If we take the stimulus to be a threat, rightly or wrongly, we will make a defensive or aggressive response. We’ll fight, flee, or freeze. The interpretation we make, based on a true or false assessment of the facts, may draw out an appropriate or inappropriate response.
What do we take as threats? What arouses vigilance? Distance regulation responses still operate inside us. Boundary crossings, trespasses of personal space, infringements of prerogatives, perceived insults and injustices carry important meanings. They do so, underneath it all, not only because someone is in your face, but because they challenge (or are perceived to challenge) your position in the reigning territorial and dominance system—as it is still reflected in the primal distance regulation ordinances of the culture, in some shadowy way . That is why you cannot shake the president’s hand without an express invitation to enter his or her space.
Therefore, the stimuli that distinguish aggression from other expressions of the stress response turn on position, status, prestige, possession, ownership wealth and dominance.
Since both stress and aggression start with the interruption to a flow, the switch to aggression initially entails a bifurcation from the stress response.
Researchers have described this transition across an enormous range of physical, chemical, biological, social and even economic sys-tems for many species of animals. (I treat the evolutionary and historical significance of the stress/aggression pathways below in # 202-210. I'm dividing the argument in two parts. If you are curious to follow the physiological modeling now, jump ahead.)
Type-A personalities, to illustrate the shift in human beings in the context of pop psychology, bifurcate early from stress to aggression. They have a low set point. According to Friedman and Rosenman, who did the original clinical research on Type A personality,
“… most Type A subjects possess so much aggressive drive that it fre-quently evolves into a free-floating hostility.” Type A’s, according to them, pit themselves in a fight against time. Friedman and Rosenman wrote: “Type A Behavior Pattern is an action-emotion complex that can be observed in any person who is aggressively involved in a chronic, incessant struggle to achieve more and more in less and less time, and is required to do so, against the opposing efforts of other things or other persons.”
As Friedman and Rosenman argue: “It is the Type A man’s ceaseless striving, his everlasting struggle with time, that we believe so very frequently leads to his early demise from coronary heart disease.”2
The struggle against time I take to be a struggle against natural rhythmicity. Its distinctive cause, in our technological civilization, is the pervasive neglect and consequent inaccessibility of natural rhythms. In their denial of temporal flow, Type-A personalities are culture-heroes of a sort: they reject and rise up against the basic rhythms of life in pursuit of new projects and “higher” goals.
When the struggle with time is colored by hostility, the resulting disorder thrusts a dangerous restriction into meaning. The type-A’s life becomes obsessive and narrow, lacking in empathy and sympathy. As Kenneth Pelletier noted, “He is hopelessly myopic, concentrating always on today’s achievement and spending little or no energy considering the far more important question, ‘What’s it all for?’”3
The narrow focus predisposes the Type-A person to resist reversal. He struggles against his own turning points. Linear progress, as for techno-enthusiasts like Ray Kurzweil, becomes the mark of a victorious struggle against time. It takes a stand as a fight against unforeseen contingencies. Despite the best analysis and planning, the unforeseen keeps coming up.
A firm body of research shows that testosterone in the presence of high noradrenaline (but not in the presence of adrenaline) is pulled away from sex and put in service of aggression. Instead of functioning as a signal to the DNA in sexual arousal, testosterone in the presence of noradrenaline works in the synapses as a neuro-modulator.
Noradrenaline makes testosterone available for the “fight” response by blocking the receptor sites for 5-HT, a serotonin precursor. Noradrenaline, by occupying its receptor sites, impedes the transmission of serotonin across the synapses. It prepares the receptor sites to respond to testosterone instead, evoking quickly kindled aggression. Katherine Thompson, a Canadian scholar, in a very thorough and well-thought-out online review article states “many studies have been undertaken that implicate 5-HT, a metabolite of serotonin in modulating aggression. In general, increased activity of serotonergic synapses inhibits aggression: studies in male rhesus monkeys showed that those with low levels of 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA) were more aggressive. Furthermore, fluoxetine, a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, tends to decrease aggression in both animals and humans. Strong evidence suggests that these effects are mainly mediated via 5-HT1A and 5-HT1B receptors.”4
Very likely, the aggressive response to noradrenalin evolved early in mammalian life for use in territorial defense, protection of the young and in other situations where quickly kindled aggression would have served survival interests. However, in humans, it has a much wider range of uses.
After it branches off from the stress response, aggression follows one of three behavioral routes, each with its own biochemical correlates.
1) The aggression can bind to sexuality. In this kind of aggressive response, the testosterone does not retreat from sexuality. The breeding season rituals, some involving aggressive displays or combat, show this clearly in animal behavior.
2) The aggression liberated by noradrenaline triggers the “fight or flight“ response with its primordial origins in individual and troop defense and in the maintenance of dominance and territorial relationships in band-sized groupings.
This second kind of aggressive response is important for our discussion because it breaks its bonds with rhythmicity. Fight or flight temporarily interrupts ongoing circadian and ultradian rhythms. When the occasion ends, the body returns to rhythmicity. Crimes of passion, fits of temper, acts of vengeance, bouts of jealousy and malice fit into this category. When the triggered aggression uses up its charge, shame and guilt replace it.
3) The aggression of persistent derhythmization is triggered by permanent cultural territory and dominance rules, by ambition, conflicts, by money problems, by threats to status. In acquisitive cultures where people pursue wealth and property as a prime aim in life, the thresholds for aggression are regularly crossed.
Many people condition themselves to bear up under the strain. Some even thrive on it. For many, the bifurcation from stress to aggression has a happy face. They take it as an opportunity to advance, to compete, to feel triumphant. They take on the stress/aggression bifurcation in the Hegelian sense. It becomes their struggle for recognition.
Moreover, for a long time the human body can accommodate itself to chronic stress without serious consequences. Decades pass until something breaks down. Our organ competencies, our resilience and resistance eventually fail. The chronic aggravation of body sites exhausts specific organ systems. Stress-related illnesses appear, multiply and interact. We enter what Hans Selye called the “exhaustion phase” of the General Adaptation Syndrome. The stress symptoms we experience develop into chronic diseases. The diseases overlap. Aging becomes a balancing act between competing ailments. Many researchers consider stress related illnesses the principle causes of death for humans with long life spans in high-tech cultural settings.
We have constitutional differences in our personal stress triggers and responses. Our sensitivities and set points for aggression vary with temperament. According to Jerome Kagan, these temperamental differences run along the shy/bold, inhibited/uninhibited, endangered/safe spectra.
Certain temperaments do well in specific historical settings. Others do poorly. What we shy away from, what we face, what we rationalize and defend against, all have stress components that cross from physiology to meaning insofar as they color our hopes and fears and twist our capabilities. The way we deal with stress predisposes us to suffer certain wounds in life (See more detailed explanation in # 87-88.). Our avoidances, defenses and over-compensations along the legs of love and wisdom make us fail in specific ways.
However, our defenses keep us from suffering the full recognition of how the aggressions that caused our wounds have ruined our chances for fulfillment. I suppose there is some advantage to palliation here.
I have mentioned our wounds. The deepest most dreadful wounds come early. They fall along the legs of love and wisdom at different stages along the way. Our wounds, rightly understood, tell the story of how and where we were stopped or beaten back on the way to love or wisdom. Traumatic events, patterns of neglect and abuse, many of them culturally relative, like the timing of toilet training or weaning, open wounds. A young child probably experiences these as sudden, incomprehensible insults. Being torn from the mother, getting lost, being slapped away, confronting an angry father, or the experience of gnawing hunger – all of these can wound us. Chronic deprivations wound us as deeply as sudden traumas. When later events occur on the same places along the legs of love and wisdom, the wounds are aggravated. Our sensations signal them. We feel them coming.
To ease the pains and to keep ourselves from losing hope, we develop defenses. Anna Freud did a clear exposition of them. We repress memories and feelings, we project our conflicts onto others, we deny, rationalize, split ourselves into walled compartments and more. We keep despair at bay, but our defenses cause gaps, absences, lacunae that depress what little momentum we have to move to our turning points.
Finally the wounds scar over. We find we’ve been bent by life. We cannot stand tall or move gracefully.
As I mentioned earlier, our defenses, along with our habitual aggressions, fears, passions and anxieties dispose us to favor one side of the oscillations of love or wisdom over the other. The one-sidedness disrupts the patterns of movement in approach/separation and withdrawal/return. We stop seeing them as phases in a polar dynamic. Anxiety warps us in action until, by lifelong habit, the side that is blocked grows shadowy in consciousness. When we favor one side over the other of a slow oscillation whose period we cannot easily sense, the shape of the whole pattern is hidden. I referred to this condition in our quick dialogue on hiddenness (in # 122). Our lopsided psychological perspective obscures the turning points, particularly in the signal events of life. We miss the big turnings. We turn back from them. Or enter a turning point too soon. Or bog down. Or follow the line of least resistance. We’re all scared. The more cowed we are, the further we fall from our possibilities.
Venues for Aggression
As it bifurcates from the stress response, human aggression comes up against love and wisdom in four venues. They roughly correspond to Hall’s four social distances.
The closest in, the most intimate venue for aggression, is internal. We experience it in the aggression we turn against ourselves. Guilt is a kind of aggression against the self. It can tear us apart. However, internal aggressions can also give us moral fiber, courage for action and staying power. To break addictions takes aggression of this sort.
The second venue of aggression manifests in our dealings with the persons nearest to us. With them, we fight in the intimate social distance, through touch and feeding, in harsh words, in sexual rejection, in coldness, and in cruel or negligent parenting. Here we hurt and are hurt by those we love.
The third venue of aggression stirs in public and political spaces. Here people gang up against each other in larger groupings. You find third venue aggression in neighborhoods, schools and in voluntary groupings of all sorts. It expresses in workplace conflicts over money, job responsibilities, promotions and firings. Here as affections turn to enmities, pecking orders form.
The enmities and amities in the third venue greatly influence the forms of civility in a society. They welcome us or drive us away. We belong or are excluded.
To some extent, groups need to defend themselves against the deviant tendencies of their own members. The problem is deciding what constitutes deviant behavior. Since the standards generally lie beneath the threshold of awareness, the monitoring of deviancy becomes a “fine art,” an art often abused by those with vengeful motives, who make themselves into the gatekeepers of belonging in groups. Usually only a few group members take on this gatekeeper function. Those who most fear having the group turn against them, pursue the job most keenly. They run the welcoming committees. They reject individuals whose gifts or personalities threaten to change the group’s standards of “usness”. They fear any changes that may make the group less congenial to them. In their insecurity about belonging, they stymie real Philia for the sake of false Philia.
Sometimes the gatekeepers ostracize troublemakers or sociopaths. More often, however, they get rid of the hapless ones, the victims of bad luck or mental illness. The gatekeepers also find troublesome the community’s most creative individuals. They threaten the gatekeepers merely by being different, because, by their quirks, they widen the standards of belief and affiliation. By seeking the freedom they need to make their creative contributions, they alarm others.
Third venue aggression appears wherever the “us“ forms in social units larger than the nuclear family. In order to belong, we must deal with group aggressions. We can all identify the third venue incidents from our lives. We have all been harmed by others. We react defensively. We close down. We harm ourselves. We trouble our waters, overturn our relationships, and with our senseless disputes spoil the small rhythms of life.
There is plenty of shame to go around. We are envious and withhold praise. We break promises. We neglect and abandon people who have been important to us. We forget those we should remember and remember those we should forget.
I was a wild young man. I had trouble connecting with groups. I arrogantly supposed I did not need to belong to anything. I was fine on my own. When I first read Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl I pitied the poor suckers
…weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten island ferry also wailed, who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons…
I did not realize I was becoming one of them. Howl ends with a terrible image. I have since seen it played out for real, sometimes with me the protagonist. Ginsberg describes the creative person standing
before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform with the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head, the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death…
Now I can catch my own destructive and self-destructive tendencies on the wing. They are shame based. I have been on the receiving end of other people’s aggressions and I have overreacted. Even a small gesture that I interpreted as a rejection when I was hoping for intimacy roused my ire, and I have turned my back and walked away never to return from persons and situations I loved. I am too thin-skinned. That’s been my ruination.
The aggressions I have given and received have not braced me up or made me manly. They made me fail. For a long time I hid this from myself by rejecting my rejecters the moment before they, in my judgment, were about to reject me. When I could no longer fool myself with this maneuver, I got frustrated and despondent, agitated and depressed. I turned my aggressive energy against myself. I dismantled my own creative life. My modular parts tore each other down.
The Fourth Venue: War
By any measure, we must count war as the greatest enemy of love. As a fourth venue for aggression, it exceeds all the rest in numbers of wounded and dead, of populations in flight and cities destroyed, in the conjoined tragedies and mutual annihilation of the possibilities of life. War is the place where the greatest enmity converges to destroy the most love. 5
Goya etching on the Horrors of War
War is not driven by hate. Money, ambition and statecraft organize the destruction. As Stephen Spender wrote of WWII:
The guns spell money’s ultimate reason
in letters of lead on the spring hillside.
But the boy lying dead under the olive trees
Was too young and too silly
To have been notable to their important eye.
He was a better target for a kiss.
History shows that the greatest threats to cultural life, and the most heinous acts against love in war, come from aggression kindled in cold deliberation. Hatred is just a tool exploited by policy makers to rally the masses. Hatred plays a minor role in strategy because it lacks patience. You need an invigorated enmity based on reason to steer aggressive campaigns. Reason can take cognizance of shifting circumstances and learn from experience. Hate negates reason. Enmity sharpens it.
As Iago, the great destroyer of Othello’s love for Desdemona, explains to Roderigo:
“If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions…” 6
Iago’s hostility to Othello stood on firmer ground than hate, because reason had freed it from its rhythmic rounds of intensification and abatement (the mirror image of love) that made it strategically unreliable as a driver of policy. To produce a great destruction, enmity needs to link reason to will and shift away from hate. It has to be able to wait. That is why Iago insists that real destructive intent works “by wit, and not by witchcraft; And wit depends on dilatory time.”
The cool calmness of the policy-driven mind can be clearly seen in the great murderers of history. Often they are family men like Rudolph Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, who during the Nuremberg trials insisted that his wife and children led a fine and normal life at the camp. He expressed pride that he had enormously improved gas chamber technology by introducing Zyklon B through the shower-heads.7
When self-awareness and self-examination fall into disrepute the search for meaning dies.
To theorize that we get to self-restraint by way of reason, as Wilson does, is to ignore the evidence of history. It’s an argument that goes back to Darwin. Paul Bloom, in an interesting short essay on the need for a psychology of morality, distinguishes the influence of reason on self-restraint from the argument for altruism and other social instincts.
“In The Descent of Man, Darwin sought to explain human morality in terms of a general increase in human intelligence – one that enabled us to transcend the emotional reactions of our primate ancestors to appreciate the very notion of ethical behavior, of a code of morality that can be applied in a fair and objective manner. [William] James had a different view, which he defended in Principles: that the unique aspects of human nature are merely the result of the addition of social instincts, such as shyness and secretiveness that other animals lack.”8
I side with James in this and present my arguments in # 137 and 138 and later in more detail in # 196 and 197.
In each venue, unleashed aggression upsets a particular balance between approach/separation or withdrawal/return, sometimes both simultaneously. In personal venues, as we have seen, aggression resets the rhythms in Eros by rerouting testosterone. In similar ways, though with different biochemical reactions, it shifts the balances within Philia or Agape. So too with the inward-outward movements of wisdom. The perturbations shift the balances between our interoceptive, exteroceptive and proprioceptive sensations by which we draw the maps of our lives and store our findings in state-dependent memory.
Aggressive intrusions upset the rhythms of love and wisdom by disabling one leg more than the other, by pushing us abruptly from leg to leg or by stalling us in one place too long. The long, comfortable approach stages we enjoy in normal family life can be suddenly curtailed. We cannot think straight, we cannot decide things, we get stuck inside ourselves. Our highs and lows, our strengths and weaknesses, our timidity and assertiveness, no longer meet our expectations. We cannot prepare for contingencies. They no longer fall along the usual legs of our social and solitary rhythms. Life as a whole becomes a contingency.
If we respond vigorously to the aggressive perturbations that fall along the legs of love and wisdom, if we react appropriately where the culture sets up its roadblocks, if we get mad when we’re expected to get mad and submit when we’re supposed to submit, then our sensitivities, interests and competencies will coincide with cultural expectations. We will conform to the culturally approved balances between inward and outward knowing. We will readily manage the repertory of recruitable aggressive behaviors we need to succeed. We will be well adjusted. Our ambitions will be apt for the perturbations we are most likely to meet in the course of life. We will find it relatively easy to take on the culturally approved goals as our own. We will be good citizens, able to accommodate cultural values to our consciences, so we can pursue success without equivocation.
Surely, we are not meant to accommodate ourselves to all culturally approved values. There are times when we have to say No. And times to say Yes too.
Rhythm breaking aggression can serve good purposes. It can focus us on danger, or motivate us to seize on opportunity. It has adaptive value not only as a rhythm-protector but also as a force to reorient our priorities.
Part of its virtue comes from its triggerable nature and its recruitability. In order to be recruitable, a drive has to be separable from its objects; its separability is what makes it recruitable. It would be harder to recruit hunger for anything beside the desire for food than to apply aggression to the desire for gain, to justice, artistic achievement, sports, politics or business.
The great heroes were drawn to their deeds by all manner of recruitable aggressive energy. When the written record of history begins, the myths of heroic endeavor no longer exemplify the primordial use of aggression as a restorer of rhythm. They become Promethean. The heroes become thieves of fire, exploiters of new ideas, creators, opportunists, conquerors. Heroic aggression can no longer achieve its ambitions in simple conflicts that can be resolved by distance regulation.
Prometheus punished for fire theft
Konrad Lorenz called this kind of wider aggression the ‘aggredi’.
“What is certain,” he wrote, “is that, with the elimination of aggression, the ‘aggredi’ in the original and widest sense, the tackling of a task or problem, the self-respect without which everything that a man does from morning till evening… would lose all impetus; everything associated with ambition, ranking order, and countless other equally indispensable behavior patterns would probably disappear from human life.”9
Are we talking about one aggression here, differently used, as Freud believed, or are we supposing that there are seven kinds of aggression, each with a separate origin attached to different aims, to use Wilson’s arithmetic? Or some other specific number? Is the aggression of a chess master fundamentally different from that of a battlefield general?
Is there something more than raw recruitability that lets aggression serve as a protector and a disrupter of love, a boundary maker or violator, a form giver or form breaker? Is there an agonal element in the personality that drives creative individuals to surpass their peers and predecessors? It will not be easy to determine this. The good and bad aggressions interact in many ways. They sometimes turn into each other.
To Sum Up: Once aggression relinquishes its conservative role as a preserver of the rhythms of life, we enter a new cultural milieu. Here aggressive interests link with reason. Sometimes they even require an alliance with reason. Moreover, they can get it because both reason and aggression are general-purpose non-appetitive, non-oscillatory functions with indefinitely wide areas of operation. Both have an instrumental character. They are both motivated to respond to problems. Stress arouses both. Innovation, assertion and creative expression flow from both.
Without planning, foresight, will, initiative and determined efforts to surmount obstacles (including those posed by other people), large scale ventures cannot move forward.
The likelihood is that evolutionary selection designed reason and aggression to help each other. Nature gave them routes by which to cooperate and even mesh. Far back in the human past, when the chemical cascade to aggression first came under partial voluntary control, the testosterone accumulated at the erotic/aggressive bifurcation point could (to some limited extent) be directed one way or the other by ideation, fantasy, imagination and intention. Reason and aggression made deals, negotiated their relationship, during the delay in the branching of the stress response.