Amygdala Hijack

16 May, 2017

Have you ever felt hopelessly dragged by a very powerful emotion that has made you lose control? Have you ever let yourself get carried away and said things that you later regretted? Or, have you ever felt that it was a certain emotion which controlled your brain, not you? If you have answered positively to any of these questions, that means that you have been hijacked at some point by your amygdala.

Amygdala hijack is a term coined by the psychologist Daniel Goleman in order to explain this type of uncontrollable emotional reaction. Goleman, as an expert in emotional intelligence, tells us that the secret to us becoming irrational has to do with a momentary and immediate lack of emotional control. It occurs when the amygdala takes over our brain.

“Intense negative emotions absorb all of the individual’s attention, serving as an obstacle to any attempt to attend to other things.”
-Daniel Goleman-

What is the amygdala?

The amygdala is a subcortical structure in the inner part of the medial temporal lobe. It tends to be easy to recognize because of its almond shape. Along with the hippocampus, hypothalamus and the orbitalfrontal cortex, they form part of the emotional brain or the Lymbic System.

The lymbic system regulates the physiological responses in the face of certain stimuli. That is to say, all of its structures are essential to the emotional control of human beings’ behavior. But what makes the amygdala stand out within the lymbic system is that it is the key to our survival. This is due to the fact that its main function is to integrate emotions with the response patterns which correspond to them,  be it at a physiological or behavioral level.

Although the most important thing in order to understand its ability to perform an emotional hijacking is to understand that the amygdala not only produces an emotional reaction. Instead, due to its link to the frontal lobe, it also allows for the inhibition of certain behaviors.

gif active brain

How does amygdala hijack occur?

Amygdala hijack is an immediate and disproportionate emotional response to the stimulus that has triggered it. This is because the stimulus is perceived as a threat to one’s emotional stability. This is produced because the amygdala prevents the activation of other areas of the brain, especially the cortex. It dominates the individual’s behavior. Also, it shuts off the area of the brain that makes us more rational, more human.

The frontal area of the cortex that is inhibited in the hijacking is the one responsible for our logical thinking and the planning out of our actions. Instead, the amygdala forms part of the most primitive parts of the brain. It’s the one that regulates our emotions. Thus, our logical thinking winds up subordinated to the command of our emotions.

“You have to keep in mind that impulses are the vehicle of emotions and the seed of every impulse is an expansive feeling that seeks to express itself through action.”
-Daniel Goleman-