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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.”