Amygdala Hijack

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Daniel Goleman waited years to publish what he believed to be the crucial element of human survival, yet scientific opinion varied and research was minimal. Eventually he put together a best seller and revolutionised how emotional intelligence affects our every move through evidence of neurological involvement. The amygdala being the first area of the brain to develop holds the key to understanding the emotional brain and the tools we are equipped with for survival. His concept suggested there are two brains, the emotional (amygdala) and rational brain (neocortex) but in situations that involve extreme emotions, the emotional brain takes over and cognitive abilities are restricted. This he referred to as an 'emotional hijack' and is evident in everyday living. I will attempt to describe his concept in great detail while referring to the brain structures involved. Strategies for reducing the impact of the hijack will also be outlined.

Before embarking on the concept of an emotional hijack, a brief understanding of emotions and the role they play in life will be elaborated on. Emotions, it's said, guide us in facing predicaments and tasks too important to leave to intellect alone (Goleman, 1994, pg 4). For example, dangerous situations, loss, bonding with a mate and building a family. Each emotion offering a distinctive readiness to act and points us in the direction to handle recurring challenges of human life. Evolution confirms the survival value of our emotions as our innate nervous system has been imprinted and they are automatic tendencies of the human heart.

When experiences even vaguely resemble a past trauma, a part of the brain known as the amygdala acts in a way that Goleman refers to as an emotional hijack. Some will freeze from fright, while others will become aggressive. This is commonly referred to as the 'fight or flight mechanism.' Rather than being channelled mostly to the prefrontal cortex, sensory input streams directly to the amygdala, overriding facts, overwhelming logical thought and causing one to react without conscious thought. An emotional hijacking can come in many forms. It is often the culprit when one finds himself or herself apologizing for behaving badly. Emotional hijacking often results in a lower emotional intelligence. I will describe the neurological involvement in this process.

The anatomy of an emotional hijacking involves neurons that explode at the first sense of fear or danger. A centre of the limbic brain proclaims an emergency and immediately recruits the rest of the brain to its agenda (Goleman, 1996, pg 14). This hijacking is triggered crucial moments before the neocortex (thinking brain) has had a chance to fully observe what has happened and when moments pass, usually the person does not know what came over them. These occurrences can lead to horrific incidents, some leading to brutal crime. More common and frequent are the less catastrophic forms; not necessarily less intense. Losing patience with a child, road rage and even seeing that person that resembles a person with unpleasant memories attached can hijack the emotional core of the brain, the amygdala.

The amygdala is two almond shaped clusters of interconnected structures perched above the brainstem near the bottom of the limbic ring. It encodes emotionally arousing aspects of stimuli and plays a crucial part in helping us form long-term memory for events that stir our emotions (McGough, 2004, as cited by Passer & Smith, 2007, pg 267). Most people remember emotionally arousing stimuli (e.g. film clips, first dates and birth of a baby) quicker than neural ones and damage to the amygdala eliminates much of this memory advantage from arousing stimuli, I will explore this further in the essay.

The hippocampus is the other key part of the primitive brain that in evolution gave rise to the cortex and neocortex, fundamentally the amygdala was first to develop and signifies the development of the thinking brain stems from the emotional brain. These limbic structures do most of the brains learning and remembering; the amygdala for emotional matters and the hippocampus for facts. An example of this is when a person see's their cousin; the hippocampus will identify this person as a relative while the amygdala retains the emotional flavour and adds that you don't really like her (LeDoux, as cited by Goleman, 1996 pg 20). The amygdala is the storehouse for emotional memory and is significant in adding personal meaning to life.

Groundbreaking research by psychologist Joseph LeDoux (2000) revealed when the thalamus (the brains sensory switchboard) received input from the senses, its sends a message along two independent neural pathways, a high road' travelling up to the cortex and a low road' going directly to the nearby amygdala therefore triggering an emotional reaction before the neocortex has a chance to scan the experience and what is causing the reaction. This puts the amygdala in the most powerful post in mental life. It is like a psychological sentinel challenging every situation and every perception with one question in mind, is it something I hate, that hurts me, or I fear? If yes the amygdala reacts instantaneously like a neural tripwire telegraphing messages of crises to all other parts of the brain (Goleman, 1996, pg 16), it is like an internal safety alarm bell that gears the body for survival.

If, for example, fear is sensed and the fight or flight response is triggered, it mobilises the centres for movement, activates the cardiovascular, the muscles and the gut. Other circuits from the amygdala signal the secretion of the hormone norepinephrine to heighten the reaction of key areas of the brain, enhancing alertness of the senses. Other signals tell the brainstem to fix the face in a fearful expression and freeze unrelated movements the muscles had underway. Others rivet attention on the source of fear and prepare the muscles to act accordingly while simultaneously cortical memory systems are shifted to retrieve any knowledge relevant to the danger at hand, taking precedence over the strands of thought (Goleman, 1996, pg 17). This is all part of a carefully coordinated array of changes the amygdala orchestrates allowing it to capture and drive most of the rest of the brain in crises including the rational mind.

The brain uses a simple but cunning method to imprint emotional memories similar to the emergency system (fight or flight). Under stress/excitement or joy the nerve running from the brain to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys triggers the secretion of hormones; dopamine and endorphin actively appear to underlie pleasurable emotions whereas serotonin and norepinephrine play a role in anger and fear (Passer & Smith, 2007, pg 379). These hormones surge through the body priming it for emergency. When the amygdala receives this information it strengthens for what is happening increased arousal of the amygdala imprints with added strength each time, with intensity. This memory can be faulty to present situations as past emotional imprints can surface in present situations, in effect an overreaction can surface moments before the rational brain gets a chance to know the difference. This involves complex interactions between brain chemicals and neural structures (ibid pg 379).

In the event of a traumatic memory; these two particular systems are at play. Out of date neural alarms in the amygdala scan situations comparing new and past situations. This method of associating only needs one key element to trigger the same past response to a present situation, which indicates a sloppy circuit as it acts without full confirmation from the rational brain emotionally charged memories have the power to trigger a crises response with outdated ways of responding (Goleman, 1996, pg 21).

Referring to my stress diary, an example of the two systems was evident on one occasion and this was relating to emotional memories imprinted in my amygdala relating to past domestic abuse, and a situation that arose with a male friend; clearly defined my outdated alarm. My traumatic experience was triggered as the memory in my hippocampus reminded me of experiences with my ex while I was in the presence of an agitated male friend these were explicit (conscious) memories mediated by the hippocampus and other aspects of the temporal lobe. Additionally my heart rate increased, I began to perspire and my muscles tightened up these were implicit (unconscious) memories mediated by the amygdala and neural connections causing my body to respond in a particular way as a result of past experiences. These two separate memories were operating parallel to each other.

The amygdala memory usually dates back to the first years of life as at birth the amygdala is nearly fully developed at birth. Traumatic events like beatings or outright neglect will imprint early on. Relations with the primary caregiver will also be imprinted and this supports psychoanalytic theory that interactions in early life lay down emotional messages in the amygdala, these are usually rough, wordless blueprints for emotional life no language to comprehend the chaotic feelings we experience and no words for the memory that formed them as the rational brain is not fully developed yet. This holds key to the fast and sloppy emotions we experience during an emotional hijack. They are good for emergencies yet can damage or make us flee from the wrong thing or person. This is a 'precognitive emotion' based on neural bits and pieces of sensory information (Goleman, 1996, pg 23).

The dampening switch for the amygdala lies in the prefrontal lobe at the other end of the neocortex major circuit and is the brains emotional manager. This works when someone is enraged or fearful, but stifles to control emotions in order to effectively deal with situations or when reappraisal calls for a different response. This neocortical area brings more analytical or appropriate responses for emotional impulses by modulating the amygdala and other limbic areas (ibid, pg 25), it governs our emotional reactions from the start. Receiving the largest projection of sensory information from the thalamus; is takes and makes sense of what is being perceived, making it the seat of planning and organising actions towards goals, including emotional ones. It allows for discernment in emotional response and is a standard arrangement, except in emergency. The prefrontal determines the risk/benefit ratio of myriad possible reactions; when to attack/run, seek sympathy, provoke guilt or when to put up a facade and so on.

Based on this information strategies for reducing the amygdala impact would be learning to recognize the specific triggers that cause this purely emotional response and then train the brain to sort the emotional response through the reasoning process, is the key to reducing and eliminating anxiety. It stands to reason that if one believes they will experience fear in the future, their chance of experiencing anything other than fear is very limited. The same holds true for visualizing happiness. By asking questions such as, imagine if we practice changing our responses to things that trigger anxiety, so that when the 'real thing' occurs one can be prepared. For more extreme cases of traumatic memory, therapeutic aid would be advised.

The amygdala can only react based on previously stored patterns. Sometimes this kind of reaction can save our lives. From that hijacked state there is still options. You do not need to stay hijacked - you still can choose actions. After all, the chemicals do not persist - they will cease in three to six seconds. This training improves a person's emotional awareness and essentially their quality of life.

In conclusion, I have outlined how extreme emotions can inhibit our thinking brain by sending the signal straight to the amygdala, paying particular attention to the hijacking of the brain with neurons and chemicals. The strategy outlined can reduce the impact of an emotional hijack and increase emotional intelligence by observing and desensitising reactions imprinted from the past.

More about this author: Sabrina Ginesi

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