It’s difficult to explain why some people do the craziest things when provoked. We’ve heard of some who were instantly transformed from mild-mannered individuals into irrational monsters after a small argument or a traffic altercation.
Why some go to the extent of killing others defies logic, but knowing how the human brain works will help us understand. It makes us realize, too, that anyone can fall prey to such primitive, potentially violent responses. So we need to be constantly aware.
This subject was discussed in a column by Dr. Saturnino “Bong” Javier, one of the country’s topnotch cardiologists and well known for his insightful columns in H&L (Health & Lifestyle) magazine.
He cited real-world scenarios: “What drives a soft-spoken, loving husband to smash his fist on a television set during a heated confrontation? Or what drives a highly educated professional to hit another driver’s face in a fit of road rage?”
All of us, at some point, have overreacted to situations in a manner that makes us regret things later on. We cannot believe we behaved in such an inappropriate and irrational manner.
Dr. Bong explained that these moments of heightened rage and disproportionate response—followed by regret, guilt or shame—are due to a phenomenon called “amygdala hijacking.”
This behavioral response was described by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence.” It was defined as a violent or volatile reaction in response to a situation.
Fight or flight
The amygdala is a small organ in the brain, about the size of an almond, also called the primitive or reptilian brain. It’s part of the limbic system of the brain, responsible for all emotions, including fright or fear. It’s something we share with dinosaurs, reptiles and other mammals.
Its main purpose is survival—to protect us and make us capable of instant reactions to escape harm. It’s part of the fight or flight response, which is activated when we’re under stress, or when the amygdala perceives a serious threat.
Unfortunately, it can’t accurately tell whether it’s really a serious threat or not, as it triggers its all-or-none response.
People with intense phobias or undue fears have been shown in some studies to have relatively bigger amygdalae, or their amygdalae show patterns of stronger connectivity to the rest of the brain than in the average individual.
Why is the instant response of the amygdala called a hijack? Dr. Bong pointed out that in instances of an angry outburst, one’s eyes, ears or other senses send the distress signal to the part of the brain called the thalamus, also a part of the limbic system.
From the thalamus, the impulses are transmitted immediately to the amygdala, bypassing the neocortex or “thinking brain.” The neocortex does not have a chance to process the impulses, and the body’s responses are triggered by what the amygdala dictates.
If the amygdala recognizes the stimulus as one that needs an immediate “fight, flight or freeze” response, the chemical adrenalin is instantly released, leading the person to react aggressively, destructively or even violently to the perceived threat.
“It is the survival mode that controls the brain. That is when one acts out of character, out of the usual mode, with no restraint and control,” said Dr. Bong.
So, if one wonders why he just had an irrational outburst, the answer is that he was not in control, and was not thinking in the first place. It was the amygdala that took charge of the response without the filtering, editing and control of the rational brain.
According to Dr. Randy Stewart, whom Dr. Bong cited, there are three usual “realizations” following a hijack —that the reaction was out of proportion to the cause, that the reaction was inappropriate, and that one is full of regret and embarrassment.
The amygdala can be overprotective, hence, over-reactive, which makes it inaccurate. Many times, it associates the dangers or threats with incidents in the past. The amygdala has recorded all the details of unfavorable experiences. Every time one encounters anything similar, it might suddenly be activated, triggering the exaggerated response.
Dr. Bong gave some examples: throwing a glass of juice because it had no sugar (a reminder to the brain of deprivation that occurred in the past?); banging on a TV in a fit of anger because the wife called him a wimp (a reminder of a childhood bully who called him the same name?); or hitting the househelp because his polo-shirt has a crease (his father whacked him because he ruined a perfectly ironed white shirt?).
Dr. Bong reiterated the wisdom in trying to be aware of our emotions before they get the better of us.
He advised: “It takes maturity and discipline to let the thinking brain take control always of the emotional brain. It is the same wisdom that is behind the cliché, ‘If you have nothing good to say, just shut up.’ Or, during a heated confrontation, it is always wise to avoid saying or doing anything first. That ability to rein in the emotional part of the brain, to allow the thinking brain to take control or to avoid being hijacked, is what constitutes emotional intelligence.”
I advise people to reframe their mindset when confronted with amygdala hijacking. Mentally count to 10 before saying or doing anything.
This 10-second delay may be effective in telling the amygdala: “Wait a minute, emotional brain, let’s refer the situation to the thinking brain and make it process everything and decide how to best react to the situation.”
The amygdala is our zealous protector, but in its goal to protect us at all cost, even at the expense of others, it can lead us to irrational behavior or even violence. Be careful that we don’t become a victim of its reactions.