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Frenzied Like The Wolf
The Berserker Phenomenon and the Science of Aggression
On the night of March 10th, 2012, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left his military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, alone. He was armed to the teeth and out for blood. Barely 48 hours earlier he had watched impotently as an IED ripped the leg off a comrade in front of his eyes, now he was going to have his revenge. Amped up on Jack Daniels, sleeping pills and steroids, Bales murdered four Afghans in cold blood, including a three year old. He then came back to base to reload and tell his friends what he had done, then left and killed 12 more. He shot an elderly woman in the chest and then stomped on her head until she was unrecognisable. After pouring the family’s kerosene over their mutilated bodies, he set the house on fire, wrapped himself in a blanket and waited to be arrested. Bales doesn’t remember what he did, nor does he have a decent explanation. He says that he felt something inside him snap…
The story of Robert Bales is shocking to the modern ear. How could he do something so utterly barbaric and cruel? But were you to recount this tale to an ancient, you might get a very different response - for lurking within the human psyche is a beast of rage and blood. It has come down to us through the centuries as the ‘berserker’. There is at present no consensus among the psychological and medical world as to why and how a man can turn into something so dangerous and violent, seemingly without warning. I want to try and tie together what little research is available into a coherent hypothesis about how a berserker state may come about and how it works. Hopefully this approach will be illuminating rather than debunking, complimentary rather than dismissive, for as we shall see, modernity has a shaky grip on a phenomenon like Robert Bales and the ‘Kandahar Massacre’.
How To Go Beserk!
In John Protevi’s work ‘The Phenomenology of Blackout Rage’, he distinguishes between three types of aggressive behaviour:
Reactive Aggression - the instinctive behaviour of an organism to defend itself and to override the tendency to freeze with fear when under attack. This can be an appropriate response, or it can be disproportionate, a hyperbolic response.
Proactive Aggression - the controlled response to a threat, but combined with an emotional reaction, typically anger, in order to motivate oneself to use violence.
Instrumental Aggression - the cold blooded and totally controlled use of violence for a specific end, not always self defence. Requires a long process of training to overcome the emotional responses to using aggression. Typical of psychopaths and professional hitmen/assassins/special forces.
What we can see here is that aggression, or the use of force against another person, is usually part of a series of emotional responses to violence. Fear and anger are powerful motivators for action, one more associated with reactive than proactive violence, but both play a role. Jaak Panksepp’s work on Affective Neuroscience shows that ‘rage’ is an archaic, modular system of the mammalian brain. In this view, the ‘rage’ system is akin to a piece of software, running automatically with no self-conscious direction or interference. Panksepp cites evidence that rage can be triggered in human subjects through chemical and electronic stimulation, but is likely to be part of a fear response rather than a predatory one. Its deep roots were confirmed for him when he showed that infants become highly enraged when their arms are pinned to their sides. As he states, rage is an adaptive action:
“It invigorates aggressive behaviors when animals are irritated or restrained, and also helps animals defend themselves by arousing FEAR in their opponents. Human anger may get much of its psychic energy from the arousal of this brain system; ESB of the above brain regions can evoke sudden, intense anger attacks, with no external provocation.”
Many people today have little experience with repeated bouts of extreme personal violence. Nevertheless the emotional circuitry of rage is still triggered under a number of curious circumstances:
Air Rage - the state of anger and aggression that some passengers experience when onboard a long flight
Computer Rage - aggression towards computers and other technology. Can lead people to shoot or throw computers out of windows.
Wrap Rage - frustration and anger experienced when trying to unwrap an object from multiple layers of packaging.
Road Rage - violence and hostility from drivers towards cyclists, pedestrians and other drivers which can result in homicides.
‘Roid Rage - the possible increase in aggression and violence experienced by steroid users.
Narcissistic Rage - an extreme response from people diagnosed with various personality disorders towards perceived slights or small acts of aggression.
As trivial as some of these examples are compared to violently murdering whole families, it underscores that a rage response can be easily triggered by circumstances where people feel trapped, anxious, insecure, are frustrated when attempting to do something or have biochemical and neurological differences from the baseline person.
‘Lifting the Car Off Grandma’
Just beyond the grasp and study of formal science is the realm of the anecdotal and the reported. Here we find the most useful information concerning the potential for humans to enter into states which are directly or tangentially related to the berserker phenomenon; in particular - ‘hysterical strength’, or the capacity for people to momentarily perform feats far beyond their normal power; ‘drug induced states’, the use of PCP and other chemicals which profoundly affect the performance of the body and similar alternate states of consciousness, including delirium, psychosis, out of body dissociation, time dilation and similar atypical phenomena.
In 2013 in Oregon, two teenage girls lifted a 3,000 lb (1360 kg) tractor off their father, saving his life, to the astonishment of the fire crews. In 2006, Nunavit, Quebec, a tiny 41 year woman successfully fought off an adult polar bear, saving several children’s lives before the bear was shot. An informal diagnosis of ‘excited delirium’ has sometimes been applied to unexplained deaths in police custody where (typically) young men become extremely aggressive, unresponsive, manic and display superhuman strength. It is strongly associated with cocaine toxicity and the use of police tasers. Cases such as these blur the boundaries between rage, aggression, fear, physical exertion, mania and other extreme forms of agitation. In a now infamous case, a young ex-high school wrestler Luke Haberman broke into the home of MMA champion Anthony Smith. Smith recounted a chilling five minute encounter with the tiny aggressor during which he simply could not stop Haberman, despite being a professional fighter and slamming his knees into the man’s head:
“"No normal human is able to fight like that," Smith said. "I'm by no means the baddest dude on the planet. But he's a regular Joe and I had a hard time dealing with him. And he took everything that I gave him—every punch, every knee, every elbow. He took every single one of them and kept fighting me."
In a brilliant Youtube video, the account ‘Traditionalist Tolkienist’ breaks down the salient points of the fight and points out that, despite taking severe blows the head, Smith was unable to knock out Haberman. Even using methods which have left other MMA fighters unconscious, something about the drug fuelled rage that Haberman was under, left him impervious to even the basic physiology of cranial trauma. Also of note to the student of military berserkers was the blood-curdling ‘war cry’ that Haberman performed on Smith’s doorstep, caught on home camera.
In some research I did for this article, I requested from my twitter followers any accounts from their own lives which involved any of these unusual, adrenaline fuelled episodes. Here’s a brief taste, the remainder I will publish separately:
“Once in middle school where I got into a fight with a kid because he spit on me after kneeing the back of my head during a football game. He was taller and stronger than I was, but I took three hits and a kick to the chest from him and didn’t feel a thing. I had the singular thought of 'GO' in my head, and I just screamed and ran at him, tackled him, and started wailing on him. Took two male teachers to pull me off. Afterwards I felt incredibly tired and sore. Was afraid too that I'd get in trouble at home for fighting at school.”
“One morning I am up before dawn with my son, waiting for our carpool to his basketball tournament. I realize that our car in the driveway, just 15 feet away from me is being rummaged by a thief.
I immediately ran out the door with a berserker yell "HEY!!!!"
I must have scared him, he took off running *fast*
Had never experienced so much adrenaline energy in my life. I sprinted after him, still yelling, with some vague notion of raising the alarm.
Caught him before he got more than a block away, tackled the thief and put him into a choke-hold. Rage starts to subside once I have him submitted, enough to think "now what do I do?" That was when the police showed up so I didn't have to problem-solve. Got cuffed and stuffed into the cruiser while they figured out who was the perp and who was the crime victim. Unlike the berserker rages as a child, I didn't "go away" mentally and "find myself" in the middle of a fight. It was hyper-lucid and focused. While I stayed in a physically elevated state for a while (maybe another 20-30 minutes to come down?) with high heart rate and breathing hard, was able to mentally calm & speak to the police calmly, give them my story, then carry on with letting my wife know the (resolved) situation. Made it on time to the basketball tournament, too.”
From south east Asia, the phrase ‘running amok’ is the English loanword for a social phenomenon where a normally quiet and gentle person suddenly loses their mind and attempts to attack and kill anyone nearby, usually with a sword or knife. Since SE Asian societies have a strong taboo against suicide, it has sometimes been understood as a way to kill oneself, but it also has long been interpreted as a possession by a tiger or other animal spirit and the offender usually cannot remember what happened. Similar terms like ‘going postal’ or ‘suicide by cop’ explain random outbursts of extreme violence following a long period of brooding or an outward calm demeaner.
In the medical literature describing ‘excited delirium’, a number of cross-over symptoms with the typical berserker mode are present, including - removing clothes, not being able to recognise friends or family, superhuman strength, unprovoked aggression, collapse or extreme lethargy after some time and the inability to feel pain. Taken alongside the fight-or-flight type hysterical strength episodes and the power of drugs to induce manic or psychotic states, it seems clear that humans can be moved from a state of rational calm to one of total dis-inhibited violence and rage simply through chemical and situational stimulation.
The medical term for the belief that one can shape-shift into an animal is therianthropy, lycanthropy or lycomania. The name reflects the ancient connection in Eurasia between man and wolf and the terrifying capacity for certain individuals, under particular circumstances, to change into a ferocious and aggressive carnivore. Other animals are common in the literature, including bears, crocodiles, foxes, tigers, leopards and hyenas, depending on where one lives.
There appears to be no one causal reason why someone would believe themselves to be an animal, or possess the capacity to change. Medical diagnoses range from psychosexual disorders, head injuries, forms of psychosis, extreme depression, schizophrenia and other related pathologies. The vast majority can be traced to something of this type and can be treated with different medications. Some evolutionary theories have offered that it remains part of the human psyche as an ‘archetypal’ brain pattern from our earliest moments as Homo sapiens. A paper from T.A. Fahey (1989) offers these case studies:
“In two women the onset of the delusion followed sexual intercourse. In both there was a history of marital difficulties and the abnormal belief was seen by therapists as a vehicle for feelings of guilt and aggression. Jackson reports the case of a 56-year old woman who began to behave like a wild dog following an attempted reconciliation with her husband through sexual intercourse. A 49-year-old woman had chronically ruminated and dreamt about wolves, culminating in the delusion of wolf-like metamorphosis after sexual activity with her husband and on another occasion, coinciding with a full moon. In two young male cases lycanthropy was a symptom of schizophrenia. One also suffered from an organic brain syndrome of undetermined cause and the other abused hallucinogenic drugs and had a long standing interest in the occult.
One interesting tradition surrounding lycanthropy is the noted desire for raw meat or human flesh which seems to accompany some documented cases. The Greek stories of Parnassus include a grisly tale where shepherds disembowel a child and make a soup from his entrails, condemning one of their number to live as a wolf unless he refrains from eating humans for eight years. In 16th century France a young boy called Jean Grenier was hauled in front of a judge and condemned as a ‘wolfman’. He confessed to eating more than 50 young girls and children, including a newborn. His appearance was typically described as bestial, with matted hair and fangs than protruded over his lips. Even as late as 1852 a man was admitted to the Asile d’Aliénés de Maréville in Nancy, France, describing himself as a ‘werewolf’ and demanded to eat rotten raw meat.
The relevance of this topic to the wider point of berserkers, especially historically, is the strong association between animal cults and ritualised violence. Warriors who felt themselves to be possessed by the spirit of an animal, or maybe to become an animal completely, would perhaps lose all voluntary self-control and engage in acts which they either may not remember or may feel to be beyond their control. What is striking today is that, even among military veterans, the need for rigorous instrumental aggression (as discussed above) seems to have largely eradicated the older, more visceral, forms of battle violence. Soldiers and veterans do snap, do engage in mass shootings or great violence towards civilians abroad, but accessing these mental states is severely discouraged by modern military training, making these the exception, rather than the modus operandi of warfare itself. We would need to look perhaps to more irregular warfare, in places like the Congo, Liberia or Sierra Leone, to find examples of institutionalised disinhibited aggression.
Sex, Drugs & Battle-Hymns
Several prominent characteristics of older berserker cults and modern appearances of similar phenomena are the uses of sex, music and chemicals to help break down the balanced, rational actor and push him into an aggressive and irrational state. The use of sexual violence, drugs and music are well documented among the military, dating back to the oldest Greek records of combat to the use of rock music and amphetamines in Vietnam and Iraq. To do justice to all three would take book length histories, so I shall merely cherry-pick some useful key points as they relate to entering into an aggressive state of mind.
Song and dance have their common root of expression in rhythm. The ability to coordinate groups of warriors, to make them move as a group, to dissolve the individual ego into the collective will was, and still is, a vital part of military training. Drums, beats, marching and coordinated drills are therefore a core component of combat training, whether bands of barbarians or modern infantrymen. In his fascinating book Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, William McNeill provides dozens of examples of warrior cultures making use of dances and music to train and provide coherence and morale. Aztecs, Zulus, Maoris, Moros, Sumerians, Greeks, Scots, Germanic tribesmen and Chinese soldiers all made use of coordinated dances and music.
Music itself can also shift the individual’s state of mind from relaxed to agitated to aggressive. To quote from Speidel’s excellent 2002 work on berserkers:
"to do deeds of berserk daring, one had to be raging mad…. Shouting and singing were ways to raise such rage. Early Greek and Roman warriors screeched like flocks of raucous birds—a mark of manhood. with a song of thunder and wind, the young Marut warriors of the Rig Veda awakened Indra's prowess. Husky Thracian, Celtic and Germanic war songs, like crashing waves, heartened warriors… Dance emboldened even more. Not only Tukulti-Ninurta's berserks danced on the battlefield: Vedic Indians did the same…. Dances, though done by all the early warriors, mattered particularly to berserks as they fanned their fury"
In modern settings the desire and requirement to both bond and agitate soldiers before they engage in combat still makes use of music. Jonathan Pieslak’s descriptions in “Sound Targets: Music and the War in Iraq” highlight how rap and metal were both employed to create a unit coherence and to rouse the young men into a state of aggression:
“It was you and your head and your music. And for me I’d listen to some Jay-Z or something like that or some Wu-Tang that really just got you pumped up, that way when you went out there, you weren’t as scared, I guess. A part of you is like, “Yeah, I’m a thug. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to fight.””
“War is so ugly and disgusting, and it’s very inhuman. It’s an inhuman thing. It’s unnatural for people to kill people. It’s something that no one should ever have to do, unfortunately, someone does. And we happen to be that someone sometimes. And so listening to music would artificially make you aggressive when you needed to be aggressive.”
Drugs have played an equally vital role across time and culture for soldiers and warriors to push through their fear and inhibitions. Alcohol has been used (with the exception of Islamic forces) by every society that could manufacture or acquire it. From Greeks, Chinese and Aztecs to the annual 550,000 gallons of rum required for the 36,000 men of the British Imperial Army. Of interest to us for berserkers is the obvious link with the Amanita muscaria or ‘fly agaric’ mushroom. Traditionally dried to enhance its toxic effects since one of its compounds, ibotenic acid, is converted into muscimol, the alkaloid which is a sedative-hypnotic agonist of the GABA receptors. The effects include an overwhelming need to move, superhuman strength, resistance to fatigue and hallucinations. The ‘mushroom warriors’ of Siberia, including the Chukchi, Yakuts, Yukaghirs, Kamchadals, Koryaks, and Khanty, made great use of the fungi and used it to powerful effect in combat.
The potential use of muscaria by the Norse berserkers has been questioned, despite having many vocal advocates. One potential alternative is Amanita pantherina, the ‘panther cap’, which is also hallucinogenic but with the added properties of bodily dysmorphia, including the feeling of hair or feathers growing from the skin, and generalised mania. No doubt that either could have been used and many tales of later soldiers using fly agaric abound. In Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War, Lucasz Kamienski notes modern battles in which fly agaric was potentially used:
“The Tatars produced a special drink made of hemp and Amanita muscaria, which they drank before combat to induce trance-like fury and raise the spirits. During the war between Sweden and Norway in 1814, some Swedish soldiers of the Varmland regiment were reported to be fighting hopped-up, most likely on Amanita muscaria, “seized by a raging madness, foaming at the mouth.” And in 1945 a group of Soviet infantrymen, perhaps Siberian, was intoxicated with the mushroom and performed equally fearlessly at the battle of Székesfehérvár in Hungary. They were said to be fighting in a wild frenzy like “rabid dogs” and then falling into a deep sleep”
Finally, sexual violence has also been one the major techniques that soldiers have used to remove themselves from their more steady rational instincts and allow themselves to enter a more bestial, primal state. Without dwelling on the history of rape in warfare, suffice to say that initiation rape and the use of gang rape in both ancient and modern warfare is a powerful tool for dehumanising the enemy and, especially in combination with drugs and alcohol, a potent way to mould outrageously violent warriors.
The final piece of the berserker puzzle to explore is the regularity with which immunity or a disregard for physical pain appears in the literature and descriptions. Trying to group different cultural forms of fighting together as ‘berserk-like’ is fraught with difficulty, but if we consider fighters like the Zulu, the Moro and the Norse, then we see similarities in the records. Quoting Kamienski again on the Zulu:
“The Zulus fought with fanaticism, dedication, and fury… Even when injured they did not stop fighting because their bodies were rendered insensitive to pain through the use of powerful anesthetizing plant remedies. The Zulu warriors seemed immune to the enemy rifle fire, so they readily launched almost suicidal massed charges and incredibly easily retained their combat effectiveness”
Similarly on the Moro:
“what frightened the Westerners most was their resistance to bullets, as after being shot several times they still kept fighting, causing further death and terror. Killing them was not an easy task; they were like zombies. The bullets pierced their limbs and torsos, scratched their bodies, but astonishingly the Moro did not drop dead, just like the Zulus. Captain Cornelius C. Smith reported that “in hand-to-hand combat our soldiers are no match for the Moro. If our first shot misses the target, we rarely have time to get off another.””
The Moro famously did not use intoxicants or stimulants of any kind, but instead used a combination of religious ecstasy and self-inflicted pain to somehow ‘shut out’ the pain of being shot. Before combat they would tie ligaments around their arms and legs to minimise blood loss. They also bound up their testicles and penis with shrinking cords, resulting in an intense infuriating rage on the part of the fighters. These particular warriors were known as ‘juramentado’ and were essentially frenzied suicidal swordsmen, dedicated to slaying as many enemies as possible before death.
We can see here two different ‘routes’ into accessing the raging state: the drug induced and the pain induced. The pain caused by deliberately binding the genitals likely activates the primal rage circuitry as discussed at the beginning; it also bears a strong resemblance to the ‘excited delirium’ also previously mentioned. In particular the frequency with which tazering appears in those diagnoses looks similar to the Moro custom of binding - an intense, agitating pain, one that drives rational thought away by again activating the rage circuit.
The scientific study of pain perception is complex, since it crosses the difficult subjective boundary between experience and the biology of sense and response, the two bridged by the nervous system. The translation of the biomolecular mechanics of cells receiving signals from external stimuli to the internal experience of pain is poorly understood and may never be truly explained. But several things about pain relevant to our topic have been reported in the literature:
People with mental pathologies, such as schizophrenia, are more likely to have an altered experience of pain sensitivity.
What is lacking is any comprehensive study of how ordinary people can move in and out of states of consciousness which alter typical pain sensitivity. As far as I can tell, the only main area where this is explored is for practitioners of ‘BDSM’ or ‘bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism’ (unfortunately). Researchers interested in how pain can be interpreted as pleasure by the brain have studied those involved in BDSM activities and report the following:
Those who ‘dominate’ enter into a brain state called the ‘Csikszentmihalyi Flow’
Those who ‘submit’ enter into a brain state called ‘transient hypofrontality’
Obviously it goes without saying that BDSM is not in the same league as frenzied killings, but, if these two brain states bear any resemblance to the reported experience of a berserk frenzy, then they are worth exploring.
In The Zone
A mental state which most people have experienced and has been extensively studied is the idea of the ‘flow state’. That feeling when playing music or sport or even just washing up - the focus of consciousness into the present moment without any reflection or self-awareness. Athletes and musicians in particular are familiar with this feeling, sometimes called ‘in the zone’.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has pioneered research into this area and MRI scans are now able to detect someone in this particular and transient mental state. Hence the term ‘Csikszentmihalyi Flow’ to describe the sensation. Crucially people often forget what happened during the state and report it as an almost out-of-body experience or one of autopilot. The brain engaged in playing a piano recital or jazz improvisation doesn’t actively remember the next sequence, but instead seems to become free and relaxed and the activity just flows from the person.
Alongside this brain state we have the idea of ‘transient hypofrontality’. This term was proposed by Arne Dietrich in 2003 as a hypothesis for explaining how the brain responds in altered states of consciousness. The key idea here is that consciousness is organised hierachically and downward pressure can be exerted to essentially ‘shut off’ a number of external inputs. Hence when dreaming normal stimuli don’t provoke a response. This control over consciousness explains how, in certain states, pain can be minimised or eliminated from conscious experience.
Linking these two ideas back into our berserker theory then - the brain can respond to a profound shift in consciousness by both engaging in the present moment and running on autopilot, as well as switching off certain external cues. This could help unlock what is happening in the berserker brain.
Putting It All Together
Looking back over the article we can identify several key points which are supported by the scientific literature:
Rage is likely an archaic neurological program, designed to help someone defend themselves when under attack or stress.
Rage can be provoked using drugs, chemicals, electric shocks, pain and scenarios where one’s intentions are thwarted or where violence may be inflicted on oneself or loved ones.
Forms of mania, hysterical strength, dissociation and other phenomena can occur alongside a rage state and may interact in different ways.
Brain pathologies, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, lycanthropy etc may also be related to the ability to enter a rage state very quickly and easily.
The use of aggression in warfare is complex, but tools such as music, drugs and sex can be employed to override fear and to dissolve the individual’s ego in a collective will.
Two brain states in particular - flow and transient hypofrontality - may explain how berserkers are able to ignore pain, even without drugs, as well as forget their experience afterwards.
This all strongly suggests that the act of ‘going berserk’ is rooted in a deep evolutionary mechanism to defend and protect oneself, but can be induced in people through manipulating the brain and body through specific actions. It also suggests that some people may be more prone to the phenomenon than others, particularly young males. In this context it makes clear sense that early warfare would be a prime theatre for combining the different elements necessary to going berserk.
Visceral and highly interpersonal forms of combat, immense fear and stress, probable traumatic memories from previous fights, use of drugs to either calm or agitate, maybe drunk as well - add chants, music and dancing and the stage is set for someone with perhaps a particular disposition to lose control of their senses and ‘snap’. Looking back at our initial story, of Robert Bales in Afghanistan, we see the tiredness and fatigue, the mounting frustration and anger, the use of drugs and alcohol, the loss of control, the autopilot flow state and the total loss of memory around the worst parts of the massacre. What science we do have seems to confirm that all these are a nested series of biological capacities, leading to the chilling conclusion that perhaps most of us are capable of similar if put under the same stresses and the same fear.
My thanks to everyone who sent me stories and anecdotes from their lives. All have been kept confidential.