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What is Amygdala Hijack?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The term amygdala hijack describes any situation in which a person responds inappropriately based on emotional rather than intellectual factors. The amygdala is the emotional center of the human brain and can create split-second responses when a person is threatened. An inappropriate emotional response to a perceived threat is thus called an amygdala hijack. The term was invented by psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman in his 1996 science bestseller, Emotional Intelligence.

The amygdala is part of the brain for many of the higher vertebrates. It regulates the fight or flight response that is key to the survival mechanism for many animals, including humans and other primates. At the moment a threat is perceived, the amygdala can override the neocortex, the center of higher thinking, and initiate a violent response. In the wild or in the presence of actual physical threats, this can be a life-saving function. In ordinary day-to-day living, however, this amygdala hijack can inspire impulsive responses the person will later regret.

On some levels, the human brain does not distinguish between a genuine threat to life or health and a subjective threat, such as loss of job status. While the latter might not even result in a change of income, a person who values a job highly may respond to such a status change as if it were an actual threat. If he or she takes inappropriate action against a co-worker or supervisor, however, the result could be a demotion or even the loss of the job. This illustrates Goleman’s three-stage definition of the amygdala hijack: emotional reaction, inappropriate response, and later regret.

Goleman advises mindfulness training, such as meditation, to reduce the likelihood of an amygdala hijack. Meditation and similar exercises, such as tai chi, encourages a person to focus on his or her surroundings and process mental data in a calm state of mind. With practice, this kind of thinking will become second nature and can allow a person to retain a sense of calm focus even during crises.

Goleman cites the 1997 boxing match in which Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear as a classic example of the amygdala hijack. Tyson lost control of his emotions and responded inappropriately, even by the standards of a violent sport. The result of this amygdala hijack was the temporary loss of Tyson’s boxing license and a $3 million US Dollars (USD) fine. Another example appears in T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, in which Eliot describes, “The awful daring of a moment's surrender/ Which an age of prudence can never retract.”

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Discussion Comments
By anon992504 — On Sep 13, 2015

Also, please consider this: in several of the dementia diagnoses this brain degeneration is the cause of inappropriate reactions in adults. They do not have the brain capacity to consider their actions or words, and even after the fact, cannot be apologetic for rude or abrupt behaviors. Because the cortex (higher functions/impulse control/mindfulness) is compromised, the amydala and the "emotional" brain have more control than in healthy brains.

Please be kind when interacting with rude adults in public; their caregivers are struggling more than you can ever imagine, and need to be able to face understanding rather than scorn. It is not as simple as just leaving the person at home or hiring help. Caring for a person with brain degeneration disrupts every aspect of your life.

By bagley79 — On Jun 03, 2012

I find it interesting how some people struggle with emotional hijacking more than others. I also believe a person can work on this through conscious effort and meditation, and have better control over this.

My dad grew up with 5 siblings and he was the one kid his mom really had a challenge with. He was impulsive and had a bad temper that got him in a lot of trouble. Even though intellectually he knew better, his emotions often got the best of him.

As he grew older he realized this about himself and made a lot of concentrated effort to gain better control. People who know him well today would never guess he struggled with this when he was younger.

By LisaLou — On Jun 03, 2012

If I felt like my kids were being threatened in any way, I can definitely see how my amygdala would be hijacked. This is such an interesting way to describe this response, but it makes a lot of sense.

I think we all know of people who seem pretty quiet and soft spoken, but if they feel like their family is in danger, their emotions will take over. At that point, they will do anything to make sure their family is safe.

I don't see this as being a bad response, as in some circumstances this kind of split second reaction would be needed.

By golf07 — On Jun 02, 2012

When I hear about an adult who has responded in a way similar to an amygdala hijack, it reminds me of a toddler.

This is the age when kids are just starting to learn how to control their emotions, and for some kids it seems to be a lot easier than others.

I know several adults who never seem to really grow out of this stage and their emotions often get the best of them. Even though they may be truly sorry for how they responded, and vow never to do it again, they always seem to repeat the same behavior.

It also shows me that learning how to control our emotions is something that we will probably need to work on our whole lives. No matter how well disciplined someone is, there are certain situations that can trigger an amygdala hijack.

By andee — On Jun 01, 2012

There have been times when I will respond to a situation emotionally instead of intellectually. While this has never been as costly for me as it was for someone like Mike Tyson, I have always been sorry for my actions later.

I think if someone knows they struggle with this or know they get angry easy and fly off the handle, they can work on how they respond to situations.

One of my friends has always had a problem with anger, and he seeks counseling on a regular basis to help him learn how to manage his emotions.

The sad thing is his wife left him because of this and it was a safer environment for the kids when he was out of the home. That was a big wake up call for him, and that is when he began seeking some professional help.

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