Guest blog: Rachel Mars on the science of rage

Our latest blog post is from artist Rachel Mars, talking more about the development of her stall for our Alternative Village Fete at Royal Holloway University Science Festival on Saturday 1st March.


‘The science in children’s stories, you know, like flying, or space travel.’

When Home Live Art asked me to think of a fete stall based on the science in children’s stories, my mind didn’t go to astronomy or physics. Perhaps because I used stories as an escape for the things I wasn’t good at, I wasn’t a big fan of books where the focus was on scientific discovery. In fact, I avoided them, heading into stories about people doing more real world things.

My first thought for the fete was the science in Judy Bloom books, but making people chart their menstrual cycle might not be that good a fit for a Saturday afternoon in Egham.

So, instead, I went back to where I have often returned, to Maurice Sendak, the grumpy uncle of children’s literature. There’s a great comic that Sendak drew with fellow graphic artist Art Spiegelman. Sendak is pictured with crazed eyes : ‘Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth!’ The whole premise is that children know and feel terrible things, and that rather than adults protecting children, it was the other way round. Sendak knew to hide his feelings from his parents, because if they really understood what he knew- he reveals in the final frame – ‘It would scare them’.

In the 1963 classic ‘Where The Wild Things Are’, Max dons a wolf suit and runs round the house causing mischief before he is sent to bed for threatening to eat his mother. The story has been the subjected to all sorts of psychoanalytic theorizing, mostly about child-mother relationships. I’ve messed with it once before, leading a rumpus in the back of a lorry at Pulse Festival. So afterchristmas I went back once again to the book.  Max is sent to a land of monsters, some frightening, some endearing, and manages to return home having mastered both these wild things and his anger. Seeing Max rampaging with his hammer, I thought, now this is the kind of science I can wrestle with.  People. Violence. The SCIENCE OF RAA-AAAGE (which I’m not sure is actually a real science).

So, what actually happens in the brain in a fury? Why are some people more angry than others? Can you generate rage? And, if you don’t have an island of fiends available to you, what’s the best way of dealing with it?

Armed with these questions I went to see Dr Catherine Sebastian, lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway University.  Dr Sebastian is an expert in adolescence, – “it’s a time when the brain’s emotional regulation is lagging behind emotion generation” she tells me, explaining a lot of the typical teenage outbursts.

From our conversation I try to get to grips with bits of the brain. The relationship between the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala seems vital in our reactions to anger.  It’s the pre-frontal cortex that’s key to us not punching the woman who does not understand London and got on the tube before we got off.  This emotional regulation area is in a see-saw with the amygdala, an emotion generation area in the temporal cortex of the brain. The amygdala is my kind of structure. It’s involved in fear, anger and anxiety. The amygdala is the part screaming ‘Come onnnn! She’s totally selfish! She doesn’t understand the London rules! Punch her in the face!’’

Dr Sebastian and I talked about the kind of things that you can do with anger. Max and his hammer are externalizing – resulting in violence and acting out. Another option is internalizing which can lead to  depression and self-harm.

More and more, psychologists are using mindfulness and cognitive reappraisal to work through anger with people, techniques that aim to put us in the present and work through our initial reactivity.  You might end up saying to yourself ‘Maybe the woman is new to London, maybe she’s never been on a tube before’.Whilst this makes a situation much less dramatically satisfying (‘and then Max thought that maybe his mother was tired and needed him to calm down and so he went and had his supper’ – what a rubbish story! Where are the monsters?) studies have found that people who naturally reappraise situations, thinking about them rationally, suffer less from anxiety and depression.

I’m still toying with just how to play with all of this in a fete context. I’m still pretty attached to inviting people into rage arena and smashing things with a hammer, but I’m also aware that perhaps the more gentle responses to rage need to get a look in.  Yoga Tombola anyone?