Amygdala Hijack — New Age Literary Term

large_open_bookToday, we have Amygdala Hijack. This explains a physiological process in our brain in how we respond to stimuli. As always, there is a lot of information to go over, but I promise that this will be useful in character building moments for your story.

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To understand Amygdala Hijack, we first need to learn what is the Amygdala.

amygdala 1

As the picture depicts, the amygdala is a pair of regions in the brain located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans. Their primary role is the prepossessing of memory, emotional reactions, and decision making. Studies have shown that the right amygdala induces negative emotions, such as sadness and fear. Whereas the left inducing both pleasant and unpleasant emotions (happiness, joy, sadness, fear). Evidence suggests the left amydgala plays a role in the brain’s reward system.

Both amygdala have independent memory systems, but work together to store, encode, and interpret emotions.

Interesting note, is that during development, the female amygdala reaches full growth about 1.5 years before a male reaches peak development. At this point, the female amygdala stops growing, where as males keep growing. This could explain why females reach emotional maturity before men, and why male amygdala is larger than females.

More than gender differences, there is more difference between the left and right. Left will reach full growth around 1 – 2 years before the developmental peak of the right one. Right will continue to grow.

The right amygdala plays a role in expression of fear and processing fear, as well as other negative emotions. It also linked to declarative memory, which consists of information that can be consciously recalled. Also plays a significant role in the retention of episodic memory, which consists of autobiographical aspects of memory. Lastly, it plays a role in the association of time and places.

In men, the right amygdala reacting to negative emotions may be linked to why males react physically to emotionally stressful stimuli. Men tend to be more physically reactive to stress than woman are, however, this is not to say that women can’t be physically reactive. Only that men are more likely to be. If a woman does react physically to an emotional stressor, it is likely because her right amygdala is being activated.

The left however deals with both negative and positive emotions. It will deal with fearful stimulation but also plays a part in face recognition. The early development of the left over the right is believed to give infants the ability to detect danger. the left appears to be better at recalling details, giving those with an activated left amygdala the response of thinking before acting.

Women tend to have more activity from their left amygdala, which could explain the lack of physical response to emotional stressors. It is also shown that women ten to retain stronger memories for emotions than men. Again, not to say that men can’t do these things, only that women are more likely to do it.

It should also be noted that both men and women make use of both of their amygdala, and are just as capable of actions of the other gender. However, as we are a sexual dimorphic species, there are notable physical and mental attributes that differ from men and women. It is never to say that one gender can do something the other can’t, only what is the most likely result from a given situation.

Interesting fact: when looking and adult men and women watching a horror film; women experienced more activity from their left amygdala than right, whereas men experience from their right than left.

How the amygdala works is that when you receive stimuli from your senses (have well over 20 internal and external senses), a signal is sent to both your neocortex and amygdala (from the thalamus, which acts as a hub) at the same time. The neocortex is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. Basically, the neocortex processes a stimuli and tells your brain how to react to it.

amygdala 2

However, a millisecond before the neocortex activates, the amygdala analyses the stimuli. It looks at the stimuli and checks to see if it has a record of it or the hippocampus (short-term and long-term memory) has record of it. If there is a match, it activates what is known as an amygdala hijack.

In many ways, the amygdala acts as a cheat sheet for the brain, to know exactly how to react to a stimuli. Not for every single one, but for the ones that have a strong emotional connection. If someone threatens to kill you, your amygdala tells your brain to be afraid, to which you begin to act with fear.

As you develop as a child and adult, you learn how to link emotional stimuli, keeping a memory of those. It is rather difficult to unlearn these, and you don’t realize you’re doing it as it happens. Generally it requires therapy to teach your mind how not to immediately react to a situation, teaching your brain to rely more on the neocortex and less on the amygdala. So far, it is impossible to unlearn the emotional memory of the amygdala.

The hijack is simply that when the amygdala links a stimuli to an emotional memory, it then takes over the brain for a short time to express that memory. The crazy thing about this process is that it likely happens several times a day and you are completely unaware it happens. A good way to find out if it happens is when you have an emotional reaction to something, ask yourself why did you react to that.

The most common amygdala hijack is the fight-or-flight response (also known as, flight,flight, or freeze response). This occurs when your amygdala perceives a harmful event, attack, or threat of survival. Your amygdala tells your brain to react specifically to that, resulting in a domino effect starting with chemicals in your blood stream to physiological changes in organs and senses.

amygdala 3

However, flight-or-flight response is not the only type of hijack. While flight-or-flight is a negative hijack, a positive is possible. Ever hear a joke that was so funny, that you couldn’t help but laugh? Not only that, you have to stop yourself from laughing to figure out why it is so funny? Both are examples of amygdala hijack.

Perhaps the best example of this is what is known as corpsing. Corpsing, also known as breaking, is when an actor breaks character as they likely can’t stop laughing. It could be because of something said between takes, or they mess up their lines so bad, it causes them to laugh. Mind you, they don’t want to laugh and just do their lines, but they can’t help it. Often times, this makes it into the blooper reel. Or it does make it into the scene, but often is done by the actors covering their mouths or making it look like they’re crying when in fact they are laughing uncontrollably.

There is the occasion that a live comedy show can fall victim to this, and just mostly laugh instead of doing the scene.

Another example of amygdala hijack is Made Myself Sad. This is where a character takes a traumatic event and attempts to joke about it. Or another character tries to make another feel good by sharing their similar problems. Both in turn cause the character to feel bad.

This is seen in Futurama episode ‘The Sting’ where Leela believes Fry is alive (when he died by a bee sting), and the Professor laughs at her and saying that Fry still exists, as a frozen corpse in space. This caused him to be sad.

Helping Writers

This relates to writing in understanding how a character may react in some situations. Often times when we try to act serious, we end up laughing. Or we get easily scared for no reason.

The amygdala is suppose to help us stay aware of our emotional response, but can often work against us. More than that, it is entirely dependent on how we were raised and the environment we encountered.

A character who has been hunting since a very young age might seem fearless compared to someone who had a very sheltered life and only worried about getting good grades.

Emotional reactions aren’t always our fault. It is very tough to overcome them. It might make us jerks to laugh at someone who falls down, but in truth, we are likely victims of our amygdala holding our brain hostage. Therapy can help with this, but it is not about erasing the emotional bond to memory, but rather delaying it as a means of control.

Your characters may not always act emotionally logical for the given situation. That’s a truth of life. We may desire to act a certain way, but end up failing. Doesn’t happen all the time, but it can from time to time in the worst of situations. Might make things a little interesting of a character laughing at another’s pain because they grew up with people laughing at their pain. Or screaming at a fear of rapid change. It’s silly and emotionally immature, but then, we are not always mature individuals.

Think of this when you write the emotional reactions to your characters, and perhaps look at their past to try to gauge how they might want to react and how they end up reacting. Perhaps having an amygdala hijack moment creates more conflict in the moment, or gives an opportunity to develop your character further.

Help Keep This Site Running

This site is a great achievement for me, but due to being unable to work, I may not be able to keep this site running. With your help, I might be able to.

I need $125 by October 30th, 2017. Anything you can give will help.

One comment

  1. […] neuroscience, the Id is seen as the lower functions of the mind and the amygdala, controlling basic urges and fight-or-flight […]

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