From Sharks to Humans, Neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields Explains the Brain

R. Douglas Fields, PhD, is a neuroscientist that began his journey as an oceanographer and discovered electroreception in sea animals; the electrical sense that detects movement. He has since studied the brain in great depth and is the Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institutes of Health. He is an author of several books and many research studies that have been featured in scientific journals and the media.


Dr. Fields, what is the study of neuroscience and how does it influence psychology?

“Neuroscience is the study of the brain at the nuts and bolts level to understand how it works.  That’s what I do. This includes neuroanatomy, cell biology, physiology, genetics, etc. Psychology is about the human mind and human behavior, but both of these arise from brain function.”

Why did you decide to study the brain and become a neuroscientist?

“I have always been fascinated by science and biology in particular, even from an early age. My PhD degree is in Biological Oceanography, and my Master’s degree is in ichthyology, [the branch of zoology that studies fish] but my research concerned sharks and their senses, which is neuroscience. My first paper, published in the journal SCIENCE before I was in the PhD program showed that obscure deep-sea fish related to sharks, called chimaeras, sense weak electric fields generated by all animals in seawater to locate prey. Actually, electroreception is more than that–it is a sense as elaborate as vision–another way of seeing the world.” Read his paper here.

In your book “Why We Snap,” you discuss the rage circuit in the brain. What triggers rage?

“Anger serves one purpose–to fight, but fighting puts your life and limb at risk, so contrary to what you might think, only a very few specific triggers will cause sudden aggression. In my book, ‘Why We Snap,’ I describe the 9 triggers of sudden aggression. These are based on neuroscience research tracing the circuitry in the brain that triggers sudden anger and aggression. New research shows that different triggers of sudden aggression are controlled by different, independent neural circuits.
(Forget about the old lizard brain ideal.) These circuits are in a part of the brain beneath the level of consciousness, in a region that controls sex, thirst, feeding, and other automated behaviors (the hypothalamus.)

If you can recognize which of the nine triggers are activated when you feel a sudden rise of anger, for example in road rage, you can disarm the response.  To facilitate this I devised a mnemonic to remember the nine triggers of rage and  to quickly recognize them in any situation:  LIFEMORTS.”

How are acts of rage and acts of heroism related in the brain?

“Both are rapid aggressive responses triggered by a sudden event in the environment, and this response does not involve conscious deliberation. The same circuits in the unconscious part of the brain are responsible for both snapping and heroism. It is the same response–we only call it snapping if the result is inappropriate, otherwise we call it ‘quick thinking’ or ‘heroism.’ People who snap and heroes both say the same thing afterward–‘I didn’t think.’ That is because this response does not involve the conscious brain (in the cerebral cortex) because that circuitry is too slow and your conscious brain cannot hold enough information at once to instantaneously evaluate a sudden threat and set you on a definitive course of action.

All sensory information, sight, sound, etc., goes to the brain’s threat detection circuitry before it goes to the conscious brain (cerebral cortex), because you must react immediately in a sudden threat. That’s why you dodge an errant basketball that streaks into your peripheral vision and then say ‘what was that?'”

When someone says they are “left or right brained,” is there any truth to it?

“Although most brain functions involve sending information broadly through networks in the brain, there are places in the brain where special functions are more concentrated.  The left and right hemispheres are somewhat specialized for different tasks. In general, the left hemisphere is analytical and reductionist, and the right hemisphere is better at synthesis or gestalt.  If you think about it, these two are opposites–building up (synthesis) is antagonistic to taking apart (analysis). The beauty is that we have two brains that are specialized for these two different functions so we can constantly switch between the two to gain a better understanding.

In my book I discuss how men and women react differently to a sudden threat. Men shift to use the right hemisphere (gestalt) and women shift to use the left (analysis). EEG analysis and functional brain imaging shows this.”

What has been your greatest accomplishment throughout your career?

“That’s like asking what is your favorite child. You love them all for different reasons. I’m most proud of my discovery and research on electroreception, because it was my first discovery. Also this was a completely new sense, which humans do not have. ” Read more on this here.

“My work on glia is significant and one of my favorite topics. This is the subject of my first book, The Other BrainEveryone knows about neurons, but only 15% of the cells in the brain are neurons.  The other cells, called glia (for glue) have been dismissed, but recent research shows that they communicate without using electricity and they control neurons. This is a completely new dimension
of brain function that is important in every aspect of nervous system function in health and disease.”
Read more about glial cells.

“My current research is on a new cellular mechanism of learning and plasticity involving glial cells that make myelin (the electrical insulation on nerve axons.) This is gratifying to me because all of our current ideas about learning and memory are based on synapses. This new mechanism, which I call white matter plasticity, is different in that it does not involve synapses; it regulates the speed and synchrony of information transmission in the brain.” Read more about myelin here.

If you could say one thing to Millennials and future generations, what would it be?

“Carpe diem, because life is short, but it’s not all about you.”

For more information about R. Douglas Fields and his work, visit his website.

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  1. This was a very informative and thought-provoking interview, and I would like to thank the author for making this article possible. The interview was really put together, and Dr. Fields was very enthusiastic in answering each question. With that, I can’t help but to formulate questions regarding the discussion: What makes the conscious circuitry or the cerebral cortex slower than the unconscious? What is the specific pathway of the sensory nerves when it enters the brain proper (knowing from the discussion that information from the senses reaches the brain’s threat detection circuitry before it is distributed to their respective brain receptors)?


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