Doug Fields on recognizing and controlling the triggers that elicit violence

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Probably like many of you, I spent a good number of my waking hours this week thinking and reading about Stephen Paddock, a man I didn’t know existed eight days ago, and about whom I now find myself piecing together random factoids to reconstruct some reasoning for the portrait of madness he’s come to represent.

There’s danger here, of course, in our fascination with the minutiae around tragedies like these, the sensationalism of evil, the dismissiveness of mental illness.

But I suppose what we are trying to do is find that line of demarcation. What happened in Stephen Paddock’s recent history to make him snap?  Why is there no easy motive that we can assign to his terror? Where’s that moment, that sadness, that breakup, that grief, that straw that took Paddock from being a “quiet, caring man,” as his girlfriend described him, to stockpiling weapons, building explosives, and staking out music festivals?

And perhaps more to the point, how are most of us able to handle similar moments of despair and frustration without resorting to violence? How do we separate him and his responses from how the rest of us would react?

I couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling that Paddock’s history seemed so damn normal; what’s so chilling is his seeming lack of clear motive. So far, in this tragedy, there’s seems to be no easy “us vs. them” narrative with which to label and thus dismiss the killer.

And perhaps that’s as it should be.  Maybe it’s time to stop that narrative and consider that there is no “them,” there is only us.

Doug Fields’ fascinating book, WHY WE SNAP: UNDERSTANDING THE RAGE CIRCUIT IN YOUR BRAIN, isn’t about mass tragedies like the one in Las Vegas. It isn’t about meticulously planned, premeditated slaughter and mayhem. It isn’t even about mental illness.

Instead, it explores the daily anger and outbursts that all of us at times succumb to, and how to recognize and deal with the triggers that cause our rage.

In watching the terrifying scenes of violence and beautiful acts of heroism play out again and again, my conversation with Doug was on my mind all through the week.

We talked about his impetus behind writing the book: a pickpocketing incident abroad when Doug, the mild-mannered neuroscientist, suddenly and uncharacteristically snapped on his attacker.

That moment of gut instinct, an almost prehistoric leftover imprinted on our neural pathways, caused Doug Fields to go deep into an exploration of our rage circuit.  In so doing, he tells stories of how rage informs both violent outbursts and heroic deeds.  And there he forms the hope that the book rests upon.

What’s important about this book, what’s important to Doug, what’s important to me, is that there are ways to understand why sudden anger and violence occur.  Why We Snap lays out the nine commonplace rage triggers we can all easily recognize.

As Doug says here, our rage is an embarrassing topic to discuss.  It’s not easy to admit that we sometimes lose it, that we have moments where we say and do things that are almost unrecognizable from our normal behaviors.

But in the midst of all the violence that surrounds our society in this moment, maybe it’s something we ought to reckon with, we ought to talk about more. And especially as a parent, after reading Why We Snap and talking to Doug, I feel I have a better playbook to do just that.

I kept thinking this week how so often when an event like Las Vegas happens, you read about the killer’s family saying, “I never saw this coming.”

In fact, the naked violence of Las Vegas brought so many difficult strands of thoughts this week:

  •       My conversation recently with a woman whose step-daughter had been gunned down in a road rage incident  and remembering the unbelievable grace of forgiveness in her eyes.
  •      A moment in an everyday football practice where I was urging my players to be more “aggressive” seemed suddenly fraught with import. How hard is it for an 8-year-old to learn how to click into “passive” mode as soon as a whistle blows?
  •      Thinking as I bought concert tickets how going to an ordinary Saturday night show—like I do so many weekends—had changed the lives of tens of thousands of people forever . . . the one place of solace many of them, many of us, thought we had.

Perhaps by recognizing the triggers that launch us into yelling at our kids for something that moments later will seem innocuous, noticing the patterns that cause our loved ones to lash out, talking to our children about why they are feeling so hurt and angry by the teasing or the bullying of their classmates, perhaps we can help curtail the rage circuit from firing.

And maybe recognizing those little triggers will help us have the conversations that might someday, somewhere, somehow, in someone prevent one of those violent impulses we all share from emerging.

Read more from Doug Fields at

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