Ataul Fatir Tahir, Lecturer Jamia Ahmadiyya UK
The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa advised Muslims to do the following when angry:
إِذَا غَضِبَ أَحَدُكُمْ وَهُوَ قَائِمٌ فَلْيَجْلِسْ فَإِنْ ذَهَبَ عَنْهُ الْغَضَبُ وَإِلاَّ فَلْيَضْطَجِعْ
“When one of you becomes angry while standing, let him sit down. If the anger leaves them, well and good; if not, then let them lie down.” (Sunan Abi Dawud, Hadith 4782)
In this authentic narration, the physical action the Prophetsa recommends to escape anger is to change one’s posture and position of the body. Strikingly, modern-day research in neurobiology and neuroscience has now caught up with this 1400-year-old advice.
While listening to Dr Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine and host of the esteemed science podcast Huberman Lab, I was pleasantly surprised to learn the following, after which the above hadith of the Prophetsa struck me. In his Work Optimization episode, Dr Huberman said:
“[…] It turns out that your posture, literally the position of your body relative to gravity, also has important implications for how alert you are. […] Now with reference to posture, there are beautiful data illustrating that when we are standing up, those same neurons in our brainstem, locus coeruleus neurons, which release, I should mention, things like norepinephrine and epinephrine, those neurons become active when we are standing. They become even more active when we are ambulatory; when we are moving […]. But when you sit, they become a little less active, and when you lie down, and indeed, any time that you start to get your feet up above your waist or your head tilted back, those neurons fire less, and neurons in your brain that are involved in calming, and indeed putting you to sleep, start increasing their level of firing. It’s a really beautiful system.
“So beautiful, in fact, that there are studies that show that as you adjust the angle of the body backwards, you actually get a sort of dose-dependent increase in sleepiness and calmness and a dose-dependent decrease in alertness.” (Optimizing Workspace for Productivity, Focus, & Creativity, Huberman Lab Podcast #57, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze2pc6NwsHQ&t=1942s)
(One such study can be found here: Control of behaviour and brain noradrenaline neurons by peripheral blood volume receptors, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6974763/)
In summary, the position of our body relative to gravity, such as standing, sitting, or lying down, directly affects the activity of specific neurons in our brainstem – either activating neurons to a higher degree or reducing their activity. As we transition to a sitting or lying position, locus coeruleus neurons become less active, allowing neurons associated with calming and sleep to increase their firing.
In contrast, when experiencing anger (coupled with a standing position described in the narration of Prophet Muhammadsa), the body responds with higher alertness and the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This physiological reaction leads to increased alertness and heightened firing of neurons, including those in the locus coeruleus, releasing norepinephrine and epinephrine, which further intensify arousal and anger.
Interestingly, sitting or lying down – particularly when angry – can act as a potent means of reducing the firing of these activated neurons in the brain, allowing the parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest”) system to take over. As we adopt a reclined position, the activity of the locus coeruleus neurons diminishes, allowing the neurons associated with calming and sleep to take precedence. By sitting and/or lying down, we effectively counteract the heightened arousal caused by anger, leading to a decrease in alertness and a shift towards a more tranquil state.
These findings scientifically endorse the protocol of Prophet Muhammadsa – to sit or lie down when angry – as a potent means of reducing anger and fostering a calmer emotional state.
As Muslims, we follow the advice of the Prophetsa whether science has caught up or not, however, one’s faith in Allah is strengthened further when age-old Islamic teachings are confirmed through empirical evidence. This confluence of faith and science continues to deepen our belief in Islam and its Divine origins, and as Muslims, we must endeavour to continue researching and exploring the wonders Islam has given us.