While researching, I came across something called ‘amygdala hijacking.’ Amygdala hijacking is a reaction that is out of proportion to the event the person is reacting to. Have you ever just lost your mind over something only to later feel embarrassed about how you reacted? That is amygdala hijacking. It is when the amygdala bypasses other systems designed to keep it in check, and the amygdala reacts.1
Psychologist Daniel Goleman coined amygdala hijacking in his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” .2 I am still reading his book. Still, I had to get started on writing my thoughts on this particular topic. It is fascinating so far. I am continuing to draw parallels between amygdala hijacking and childhood abuse.
For example, one of the signs of childhood abuse is emotional outbursts. I know that I had them growing up. I would have those episodes quite often, and I could get very violent. And it isn’t only me. I have read other descriptions of children who have been through abusive situations, and they have similar outbursts. That is amygdala hijacking. And the amygdala is one of the areas of the brain that is physiologically changed due to experiencing abuse. Coincidence? I think not.
Deeper Dive into Our Brains
Since we are discussing the concept of the amygdala hijack, it is only fair that we start with the amygdala. It is considered our ‘lizard brain’ as it developed before the higher functioning areas of our brains, like the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala protected us back in the days when humans needed to decide to fight or flee. Survival was based on either of those reactions. And they had to happen quickly.
Another earlier or primitive area of our brain that works closely with the amygdala is the hippocampus. It is essential in interpreting and developing new memories. It is also one of the main areas that are affected by Alzheimer’s. It also acts as our internal GPS of sorts by developing a map of our surroundings to help us navigate. And it plays a role in regulating the amygdala.
Eventually, the prefrontal cortex developed and became the higher, executive functioning area of the brain. The prefrontal cortex does a lot more than what science has been able to determine so far. But from what neuroscientists have been able to determine, it is the area of the brain that focuses on self-control, long-term goals, etc. It is also the area of the brain that helps to keep the amygdala in check.
The thalamus receives signals from the sensory organs (eyes, ears) to the areas of the neocortex (area of the brain that deals with sight and sound). The thalamus consists of nuclei that are specialized to handle the different sensory inputs. The only sensory information that does not come through the thalamus on its way to the neocortex is smell. And we shall soon find out that the thalamus and the amygdala are also connected.
Usually, it is the prefrontal cortex that analyses the information and determines the best course of action. And that includes emotional triggers. The prefrontal cortex can still determine a fight or flee reaction, but it takes a lot longer. The prefrontal cortex has to go through a risk/benefit analysis before deciding the best way for us to react. (Goleman, 1995, p.25)
Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at the Center for Neural Science at New York University research, provided the needed detail to explain how the amygdala can circumvent the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. His research showed that sensory signals travel to the thalamus directly to the amygdala. It is that synapse connection that allows the amygdala to jump into action before the other areas have even received the information. (Goleman, 1995)
When I had first started reading about the amygdala hijacking, I assumed that it was the amygdala simply overriding the more rational parts of our brain. It is more than that. The brain developed to have that backdoor access directly from the thalamus to the amygdala. Perhaps not so much survival of the fittest but survival of the fastest amygdala?
Amygdala in the Real World
It’s like when I returned from a deployment almost sixteen years ago. I was awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of the night and soaked in sweat. That initial moment of waking up, I thought I was back in Baghdad, and I reached for my weapon. But it wasn’t there. In a full panic, I really woke up, jumped out of bed, only to realize that I was home.
What had triggered that? The sound of a low flying helicopter. During my deployment, I lived near the black hawk hanger and heard helicopters all of the time; I also flew in them from time to time. That sound had become ingrained in my memory as being associated with my deployment. When I heard that while I was sleeping, I thought I was back in Baghdad.
Amygdala and Childhood Abuse
So, what could cause the amygdala to overreact through its backdoor connection to the thalamus potentially? Goleman writes that neuroscientists have hypothesized that terrifying memories of trauma (whether from childhood abuse or other trauma) become ingrained in the emotional circuitry. Those memories then become a fight of flight triggers at even the hint of that experience occurring again.
Remember that the amygdala makes associative connections between previous experiences and current experiences. If the experience is remotely similar to the limited information the amygdala receives, it goes into reaction mode. It is our brain’s ultimate method of keeping us safe.
The more I research amygdala hijacking, the more I do think there is a connection between childhood abuse survivors and the ways that we interact with the world. I think it would also explain the behaviors that I exhibited growing up.
For example, I would fly into fits of rage, saying, and behaving in ways that may not have fit the situation. Or maybe they did at the time, but over the years, my prefrontal cortex has downplayed the danger. That is just another way that my mind has minimized my experience.
Check out my post on September 4, when I dig deeper into the connection between the amygdala and childhood abuse.
“These vivid, terrifying moments, neuroscientists now say, become memories emblazoned in the emotional circuitry. The symptoms are, in effect, signs of an overaroused amygdala impelling the vivid memories of a traumatic moment to continue to intrude on awareness. As such, the traumatic memories become mental hair triggers, ready to sound an alarm at the least hint that the dread moment is about to happen once again. This hair-trigger phenomenon is a hallmark of emotional trauma of all kinds, including suffering repeated physical abuse in childhood.”
— Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman
- Cuncic, Arlin. Amygdala Hijack and the Fight or Flight Response. Very Well Mind. June 16, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-happens-during-an-amygdala-hijack-4165944. Accessed August 30, 2020.
- Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Dell, 1995