Learning Lab

Hijacked: When Reason Runs Away

By Amy Brann

In the last few articles, we’ve taken a little trip through time and space. Using the “Triune Brain” model first proposed in the 1950s and 60s as our guide, we’ve discussed how Paul D. MacLean pictured the brain evolving in response to increasingly sophisticated and complicated interactions with the environment.

We’ve also discussed how more recent findings throw the model’s validity into question but how it has remained a useful tool for people who aren’t brain surgeons to visualize the structure and functions, and how they work together and against each other in our daily lives.

Today, we’re going to look at a phenomenon that is relatively common and that, therefore, you may witness or experience more than once.

However, for clarity, we will be using another overly simplified model that is useful for illustration and learning but is falling out of favor due to recent findings. (I discuss those findings in more detail in this blog post.) In fact, this model, under different names, is so common that you may recognize it as something others have told you before and could be considered a “cousin” of the Triune Brain Model.

It contains the same caveats, assumptions, and significant oversimplifications that the Triune Brain model incorporates. It assumes that all processes in the brain are discrete, separate functions that only activate specific areas of the brain, and also that particular areas of the brain only perform specific tasks related to that process.

Hopefully, by now, you understand that the brain and its functions are exponentially more complex than shown in these models, and you may even recognize evidence of these errors as we proceed. Just remember as you read, and when you hear this model in the future—as you no doubt will–that this is a term and a description of the process that neuroscientists avoid.

It is the model of the Amygdala Hijack.

A Very, Very Bad Day!

As a species, we are quite proud of our reasoning powers and our logical abilities, of how we solve problems and create tools if needed, of how we’ve even been to the moon and back. These are the skills that separate us from the animals we loudly pronounce.

But what about that time we shouted at our boss … out of the blue … for no apparent reason. That doesn’t seem like a logical, well-reasoned action.

Or how about that time you were cut off in traffic by that idiot in the little white truck–I don’t know about you, but for some reason with me they’re almost always driving a little white truck! It may not have been the first time that day someone cut you off, but suddenly you’re cussing and shouting. You might pound on the steering wheel a bit. Perhaps you notice that you’re grinding your teeth and that you’ve started sweating and shaking. And now it’s not just that little white truck! Everyone is driving like an idiot, and they’re all out to get you. How is it that you’re the only sensible driver on the road?

So, there’s more cussing and shouting and pounding on the steering wheel and shaking and sweating until you finally get home. Then you snap at everyone as if it was their fault that nobody in the damn country can drive properly anymore.

When you’re behaving like this, you might hear someone asking, “what’s gotten into you?” Someone else may ask, “who are you today?” You may even wonder this yourself.

So, what happened?

Well, it’s not exactly an excuse, but some will tell you you’ve just been hijacked.

What Do You Mean … Hijacked?

If you think back to our trip through the Triune Brain and its development, you’ll remember the three parts:

  • The lizard brain looking after basic functions such as keeping your heart beating and your breath flowing in and out, with a smattering of survival drives such as sexuality, aggression, and dominance thrown in.
  • The limbic system using action-producing shortcuts such as emotions and participating in processes such as memory formation and in drives such as motivation to cope with increasingly complex interactions with the world around us.
  • The neo-mammalian complex or neocortex, the largest portion of the brain housing, the seat of reasoning and logic housing all higher cognitive functions that we think of as making us human.

We like to believe that we are always in control, that our every action is passing through the neo-mammalian complex to be considered, compared, and corrected before we act. But lurking just below reason, is the limbic system, the home of emotions. And lying within the limbic system are the amygdalae, the traffic controls of the brain according to the Triune Brain Model. In this picture, they process signals related to danger and fear, and often they allow the neo-mammalian complex to figure its way out of a situation using reason and logic.

Sometimes, however, signals indicating danger are processed in the amygdalae and associated structures and the amygdalae seem to decide that there is no time for all this reason and logic nonsense, that action is needed and is needed now …

And before you know it you are in a full-blown fight or flight response with its flood of adrenaline and its physical symptoms and its overwhelming drive to deal with the danger. This is the Amygdala Hijack.

Famous Examples of Amygdala Hijack

Probably the most famous examples of Amygdala Hijacks are both from sporting events, situations where stress levels are already high and where everyone is on edge. Amygdala Hijacks exhibit some common elements, and we will discuss them shortly but cast your mind back.

It is June 28, 1997. We’re in Las Vegas, Nevada, and boxer Mike Tyson was trying to regain the world title he had lost seven months previously to Evander Holyfield. In the third round, Tyson bit off part of Holyfield’s right ear and spat it out onto the ring floor. Inexplicably the fight was allowed to continue until it was discovered that Tyson had then bitten Holyfield’s left ear while in another clinch. He was then disqualified and, in the following months, lost his boxing license because of these acts.

Was the ear-biting part of an Amygdala Hijack? Possibly, but what distinguished this as a hijack was Tyson’s reaction after the disqualification. Holyfield had to be surrounded by security men as a furious Tyson tried to reach him by fighting through a crowd of officials, trainers, media people, etc. swinging wildly at anyone who got in his way.

Then as Tyson was returning to his dressing room he got into a verbal altercation with the fans, climbed a railing, and tried to chase them down. He was completely out of control.

Possibly as famous as the Tyson incident was the headbutt by French soccer star, Zinedine Zidane, in the 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France. After a rather clumsy tackle by an Italian player Zidane, who was not only a star player but also was considered a sportsman and role model, walked over and headbutted the Italian in the chest. Even stranger than the fact that Zidane reacted in this way was the fact that it was right in front of the referee. Zidane was ejected from the game and, now playing a man down, France lost.

Elements of an Amygdala Hijack

The term “Amygdala Hijack” seems to be attributed to a psychologist, Daniel Goleman, and it refers to situations where an overwhelming emotional response occurs that is completely out of proportion to the stimulus that provoked it. If you’ve ever sat down after an intense emotional event and thought, “what was I thinking?” there is a good chance that it was an amygdala hijack. You were responding entirely on an emotional basis. In fact, asking that very question is typical of a hijack.

Dr. Goleman described a hijack as having three parts:

  • An emotional reaction
  • An inappropriate or exaggerated response
  • Feelings of regret after the fact

This type of response can be lifesaving in the right circumstances, and often is in the animal kingdom. But why “a threat” is perceived as more dangerous than it actually is in our daily lives remains unclear, but it is known that as threats increase in intensity the blood flow and oxygenation increases in the amygdala, and decreases in the pre-frontal cortex. Many saw this as evidence that emotion takes over while logic and reasoning power diminish.

Dealing with Hijacks

As a coach, you must remain aware of the possibility of these “Amygdala Hijacks,” both in your clients and in yourself.  Stress increases the chance of these events occurring, and while you may not be aware, you may be inflicting some degree of stress upon your client, especially if they are unwilling for some reason.

Alternatively, that nuisance client, the one who questions everything, who turns everything into a debate could be stressful for you as the coach.

The most important factor in avoiding such hijacks is to remain aware, to be mindful. To the observer, the onset of a hijack may appear instantaneous. It may even feel that way to the victim, but it is likely that they are already in a state of increased stress. If stress levels seem to be rising, you should find some way of diverting attention from the stressors. Allow the client (or yourself) the opportunity to relax. Slow things down.

Remember that emotions can often be contagious, so you should lead the way rather than allowing the emotional client to lead. Don’t force relaxation, enable it to occur.

And on top of everything else, recognize a hijack when you see it. It is not you. Don’t take it personally. The client is not in command … his amygdalae are! (At least according to this theory, they are)

Problems with The Hijack Model

The Amygdala Hijack is a simple, even a romantic notion for those who believe in the Triune Brain Model. It has been used as evidence of evolution, the primitive chimp brain briefly instinctually taking over to save a person’s life. But it bases itself in old theory.

Emotions were thought to be innate, to be an established sub-routine in an expanding program. But even the computer analogy is insufficient: A brain doesn’t really work in the same way as a computer. Science is now showing that emotions are not just shortcuts automatically executed. If fear is an emotion and an emotion is an automatic, unconscious process then why do we experience fear as a conscious state? Why are we aware of it? Wouldn’t that awareness require higher order functions such as cognition?

So, feel free to use the Hijack model as a discussion starter, an initial explanation for what is happening but don’t forget to expand on it. The Amygdala Hijack is an attempt to explain the wonders of the brain, but it is only a cartoon. Neuroscientific findings are proving all the time that the brain is many times more magnificent, more complex, more wondrous than this. And don’t forget to take a look at What’s new in neuroscience? (This doesn’t happen often: emotions).

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