Saturday, February 18, 2012


When I write my series on perfectionism, remind me to tell you how it's taken me this long to post this blog because I couldn't find the cartoon clip I wanted.  Ugh.  Read on.

Amygdala Hijack.  I have to tell you I love this term.  Thank you, Daniel Goleman, for coining a phrase that’s so dramatic and descriptive!  (any client is reading this and thinking “oh no . . . here she goes again).

I am a SERIOUS visual/kinesthetic learner (remind me to come back to this – knowing what kind of learner you are has a huge impact on the effectiveness of your ability to use your brain most efficiently).  What this means for me is that words create pictures in my head and have no meaning without image.  For this reason, I detest phone sessions.  I have a terrible difficulty absorbing what someone is telling me without associated visual cues.  So the term “Amygdala Hijack” conjures up the image of the tiny blue dot on the foam brain puzzle in my office leading the screaming charge away from perceived danger and taking with it all of the other brain parts.  Kind of looks like this in my head:  (insert copyright protected cartoon of man in a white shirt with eyes bugging out, screaming and running)  Except he’s wearing blue.  (Settling for Monty Python here instead.  But it's not really what I wanted.)

Your amygdala is responsible for emotional memory, and is located in the neighborhood in your brain where there is no thinking, only reacting.  No words, just feelings.  Anything you see, hear, feel, smell, taste or touch goes through here first, and your amygdala compares it to al the fear memories you have and asks "IS THIS GOING TO EAT ME OR NOT?"  And by the way, your brain generalizes.  So memories that were uncomfortable or embarassing or otherwise unpleasant get lumped in with genuine life threats, just in case.  Your brain figures it's a better idea to over-react to a rustle in the bushes that turns out to be a bunny than to under-react to a rustle in the bushes that turns out to be a wolf.

Think back to the Mountain Lion vs. WalMart bag post. 

You and I can clearly recognize that the bag flapping on a bush poses no legitimate danger to my horse.  In fact, even my beloved horse Max has been known to walk around with WalMart bags in his mouth (when he was a youngster, I’d always find him out behind the shed in his pasture, hanging with the wrong crowd, and ALWAYS with something dangerous in his mouth.  WalMart bag = death if he actually ate it.) or on his head.  (We call this de-spooking).  Anyway, here’s the point:  Max is trotting happily down the trail until something UNEXPECTED happens.  His amygdala says “DUDE!!!  Unexpected might be BAD!!!  React first and think later!!”  And Max is in the next county before his heart rate returns to normal because his fight or flight response kicks in and he bolts off the trail.  

A perfect example of the amygdala hijack. In Max’s brain, UNEXPECTED = BAD.  The bag itself isn’t dangerous, and he’d agree with us on that most days.  But instinct tells Max that he should flee at the first sign of something unexpected, just in case it’s a mountain lion . . . or a rattlesnake . . . or any number of things that are actually dangerous.  See, it would take more TIME for Max to figure out whether or not the unexpected thing was dangerous.  Reacting to anything unexpected saves a couple seconds, and those couple seconds could be a life or death thing if that WalMart bag were really a threat. 

How do you know that you’re the victim of an amygdala hijack?  Simple.  AFTER then whole thing is over, you realize you’ve had a sudden, intense emotional response, which (later) seems out of proportion to the situation.  Hijack, I tell you.  Your amygdala ran away with you.  The bottom line?  Your limbic brain is interpreting a life-threatening danger where your thinking brain would say there is none.  In that fight, your Amygdala has the advantage of time.  The fight or flight response happens TEN TIMES faster than a thoughtful consideration of anything you come across.  So by the time you REALIZE you’re not in danger, the adrenaline is already coursing through your veins.

Think about it.  When does your Amygdala Hijack you?


  1. "What this means for me is that words create pictures in my head and have no meaning without image." YES! That explains why when my brain can't keep up with something, the words become just sound. I hear and understand EACH word, but the whole thing makes no sense.

    Great explanation! I will watch out for the next hijack.

  2. My amygdala had a serious decrease in the number of things it reacts to when I worked with disturbed children. "slow" was always better than "fast" at that place. I admit that I never ran into a killer bunny there, not even while putting a bandage on a pumpkin.