Qualities of Leaders: The Amygdala Hijack

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Recently I was driving on a freeway with a friend. We were having a quiet companionable moment together when someone cut in front of our car while changing lanes. My companion, who was driving, immediately went ballistic, swearing and yelling at the other driver. His behaviour seemed to come out of nowhere and I was shocked until I remembered reading about the so-called “Amygdala Hijack”, a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his writings about Emotional Intelligence.

What an interesting phenomenon this is!

Drawing on LeDoux’s work, which uses animal research to understand pathological fear and anxiety in humans, Goleman uses the term Amygdala Hijack to describe immediate and overwhelming emotional responses which are over the top and out of sync with the actual situation. In these cases the stimulus has triggered a more significant emotional threat than would seem reasonable to an observer.

The neuroscience reads like this: From the thalamus, a part of the stimulus goes directly to the amygdala while another part is sent to the neocortex (the rational or thinking brain).

If the amygdala perceives the stimulus as a fight, flight or freeze situation, it triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, so in case of a match, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the neocortex can be received, leading to seemingly irrational and possibly destructive behaviour.

If the amygdala does not find any match to the stimulus received with its recorded threatening situations, then it acts according to the directions received from the neocortex.

Now my friend is – most of the time at least – a charming man with a high degree of Emotional Intelligence in his interpersonal relations. He is a leader. As well, he is kind and empathetic, and can often put himself in another person’s shoes and feel deeply for their problems. So when he reacts to a moderate stressor with such an over-the-top response, I find myself getting stressed and wanting to shout at him to settle down and be reasonable, which of course would not be the best choice of my own behaviour!

I wonder if testosterone is involved in some way and if women experience Amygdala Hijacks as often as men may do – and do the trigger circumstances differ with gender differences? or it is more related to temperament and world view thus influencing how different personalties approach and interact with their world?

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