Episode 71: Understanding & Controlling Aggression | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • Neural circuits (not individual brain areas) trigger aggression
  • Aggression is not a switch; it’s a process with a beginning, middle, and end
  • Aggression actually hinges on the hormone estrogen
  • Testosterone in and of itself does not trigger aggression – testosterone is aromatized into estrogen within the brain and binding to estrogen receptors in the area of the brain that leads to aggression
  • Estrogen triggers aggression in the brain and testosterone increases the pressure toward an aggressive episode
  • Recipe for aggression & reactivity: increased cortisol, reduced serotonin, short days
  • Self-regulation is a key component of whether someone will engage in aggressive behavior
  • Tools to reduce aggressive tendencies and impulsivity: pay attention to how daylight changes make you feel, supplement with omega-3, supplement with ashwagandha in 2 weeks on/2 weeks off cycles, get sunlight early in the day, try a hot bath or sauna, avoid beverages that contain both alcohol and caffeine


Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.

In this episode, Andrew Huberman describes the neural mechanisms that activate and control aggressive states and behaviors, the effects of alcohol and caffeine, and the role of hormones in mediating violent and/or competitive aggression. He also reviews tools that can be used to modulate the factors that have been shown to ‘prime’ an individual for aggression, including sunlight, estrogen sensitivity, competition within social settings, overall stress levels, and the hormone cortisol.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Basics Of Aggression

  • The context of aggression matters: some are ok – think of a mother protecting her child; while others are not acceptable – such as picking a fight unprovoked
  • Sadness and aggression are not one in the same thing
  • There are neural circuits that work together to engage a pattern of behaviors
  • “Aggression has a beginning, middle, and an end. That means it’s a process, not an event.” ­Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • Certain hormones and neurotransmitters will drive people to different levels of aggression, but a buildup of pressure is the real driver
  • A collection of neurons in a part of the brain called the ventromedial nucleus hypothalamus (VMH) evokes aggressive responses
  • The neurons responsible for making estrogen receptors in the VMH are specifically responsible for generating aggressive behavior
  • Stimulation of the VMH in mice evokes almost instantaneous aggressive behavior
  • Types of aggression: (1) reactive aggression – triggered by a fight for life; (2) proactive aggression – activation of ‘go’ pathways and leaning in to overcome a certain state

Effect Of Hormones On Aggression

  • Dispelling a myth: testosterone does not cause aggression – it causes proactivity and the willingness to lean into the effort in competitive scenarios and makes effort feel good
  • Testosterone increases natural tendencies:  if you are already aggressive, it will make you more aggressive; if you are competitive, it will make you more competitive, etc.
  • The activation of estrogen receptor containing neurons makes people more aggressive
  • Testosterone can be converted into estrogen through aromatase
  • Aggression levels vary on short days versus long days: on short days the melatonin signal goes up, dopamine is lower, and stress hormones circulate more
  • Under conditions where serotonin is reduced, estrogen is more likely to trigger aggression
  • If cortisol is higher, there’s a tilt toward aggression

Genetics Of Aggression

  • Genetic bias exists but it’s rare that aggression will boil down to one specific gene – there is almost always an interplay between genetics and the environment
  • There is a strong correlation between season and aggression

Effects Of Alcohol & Caffeine On Impulsivity

  • Caffeine increases autonomic arousal and creates a sense of readiness in the brain and body
  • Alcohol decreases activity in the sympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system and ultimately makes us less alert
  • Caffeine & alcohol are on opposite ends of the spectrum
  • The more alcohol you consume, the more likely you are to engage in indirect aggressive behaviors
  • The combination of caffeine and alcohol biases people toward impulsivity and less self-regulation

Tools To Manage Aggression

  • Omega-3 can reduce impulsivity and aggression for predisposed individuals by modulating hormone systems
  • Omega-3 dose: 1g or more per day
  • Get sunlight in your eyes early in the day
  • Hot baths and sauna can reduce cortisol (20 minutes)
  • Ashwagandha may reduce cortisol – but cycle about 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off
  • L carnitine can reduce aggressive tendencies – and can be supplemented or found in food but isn’t very bioavailable; you can find injectable L carnitine – try 500mg-1g per day


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Notes By Maryann

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