The stereotype concerning someone with anger issues is that they just have bad impulse control. You joke that they haven't slept in a week, they start screaming. But it may be that people blow up not because they can't hold in their feelings, but because of poor social processing that makes them think your sleep comment was actually you telling them they're completely incompetent.
In a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, University of Chicago neuroscientists used fMRI to to measure the white matter in the brains of people with intermittent explosive disorder. They found that, for people with the anger disorder, white matter in an area called the superior longitudinal fasciculus was less dense than in people that had other psychiatric disorders or were otherwise healthy.
The SLF area is the "information superhighway" that connects the frontal lobe with the parietal lobe. The frontal lobe is responsible for processing emotion and for decision-making, while the parietal lobe processes sensory output, as well as language.
"It's not so much how the brain is structured, but the way these regions are connected to each other," said Royce Lee, lead author of the study. "That might be where we're going to see a lot of the problems in psychiatric disorders, so white matter is a natural place to start since that's the brain's natural wiring from one region to another."
The findings suggest that one reason people have anger issues is that they misinterpret social behaviour and think that other people's behaviour is negative when it isn't. They don't fully understand the situation and misread cues like body language, which leads them to become more angry and more likely to explode. This is bad news for people with the disorder because experiments have shown that venting anger — even more justified anger — makes you feel worse.
Looking at brain connectivity is key in understanding psychiatric disorders because people with psychiatric disorders otherwise show few physical differences from those who are healthy. The research could have important implications both for those with anger disorders and with borderline personality disorder.
In the meantime, those of us without an anger disorder could learn how to prevent our anger from spiraling out of control. Justified or no, life is usually better when we minimise the amount of ragestrokes we have to experience, and apologise for.