Amygdala Hijack


Amygdala [uh-mig-duh-luhhijack is a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.’ Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are out of measure with the actual threat because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat. The brain processes stimuli by having the thalamus direct sensory information to the neocortex (the ‘thinking brain’). The cortex then routes the signal to the amygdala (the ’emotional brain’) for the proper emotional reaction. The amygdala then triggers a flood of peptides and hormones to create emotion and action.

Perceived potential threats, however, can disrupt this smooth flow; the thalamus bypasses the cortex and routes the signal directly to the amygdala, which is the trigger point for the primitive fight-or-flight response; when the amygdala feels threatened, it can react irrationally and destructively. Goleman states that ‘Emotions make us pay attention right now – this is urgent – and give us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: Do I eat it, or does it eat me?’ The emotional response ‘can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened.’ An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization that the reaction was inappropriate.

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