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Amygdala hijack - fear caused by optical stimulus.

Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.[1] Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.[2]

'"Anatomically the emotional system can act independently of the neocortex," LeDoux told me. "Some emotional reactions and emotional responses can be formed without any conscious, cognitive participation...because the shortcut from thalamus to amygdyla completely bypasses the neocortex"'.[3]


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.[4]

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".[5][6] An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization that the reaction was inappropriate.[5]

Goleman later emphasised that 'self-control is crucial ...when facing someone who is in the throes of an amygdala hijack'[7] so as to avoid a complementary hijacking - whether in work situations, or in private life. Thus for example 'one key marital competence is for partners to learn to soothe their own distressed feelings...nothing gets resolved positively when husband or wife is in the midst of an emotional hijacking'.[8] The danger is that 'when our partner becomes, in effect, our enemy, we are in the grip of an "amygdala hijack" in which our emotional memory, lodged in the limbic center of our brain, rules our reactions without the benefit of logic or reason...which causes our bodies to go into a "flight or fight" response'.[9]

Positive hijackings

Goleman points out that 'not all limbic hijackings are distressing. When a joke strikes someone as so uproarious that their laughter is almost explosive, that, too, is a limbic response. It is at work also in moments of intense joy'.[10]

He also cites the case of a man strolling by a canal when he saw a girl staring petrified at the water. Suddenly, 'before he knew quite why, he had jumped into the water - in his coat and tie. Only once he was in the water did he realize that the girl was staring in shock at a toddler who had fallen in - whom he was able to rescue'.[11]

One might describe flow as the opposite of Amygdala hijack. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as "energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." This can only occur when the Amygdala is completely influenced by the neocortex.

Emotional relearning

LeDoux was positive about the possibility of learning to control 'the amygdala's hair-trigger role in emotional outbursts: "Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go. What therapy does is teach you how to control it - it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotion about it remains in a subdued form"'.[12]

See also


  1. Nadler, Relly What Was I Thinking? Handling the Hijack. URL accessed on 2010-04-06.
  2. Conflict and Your Brain aka “The Amygdala Hijacking”. URL accessed on 2010-04-06.
  3. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (London 1996) p. 18
  4. Freedman, Joshua Hijacking of the Amygdala. URL accessed on 2010-04-06. [dead link]
  5. 5.0 5.1 Horowitz, Shell Emotional Intelligence - Stop Amygdala Hijackings. URL accessed on 2010-04-06.
  6. Hughes, Dennis Interview with Daniel Goleman. URL accessed on 2010-04-06.
  7. Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (1999) p. 87
  8. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence p. 144
  9. Rita DeMaria et al., Buiding Intimate Relationships (2003) p. 57
  10. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence p. 14
  11. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence p. 17
  12. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence p. 213

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