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Amygdala Hijack

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It was a panic message: “Papa, call me urgently. I feel some kind weird”

My daughter, Nikita was attending a Sociology seminar in the university. One of the speakers said, “women are not supposed to do any professional work, they are designed to look after family and kids. It is useless for girls to pursue higher studies….”  He went on and at one point my daughter shot up and yelled, “this is absurd, please stop”.

There was an absolute silence. In her words, she couldn’t recall how long she was in that posture with her fingers pointed. She was lost in time. Frozen. After a while, a boy started clapping and everyone else including the speaker followed suit. He said, “This is what I have been expecting, we need people who can react to absurdities”

But the point here is, how come she became physically dumbstruck?

The answer is Amygdala Hijack. Before coming to Amygdala, let see what’s in our brain.

Human brain has many advance options and features compared to reptiles and mammals. Reptiles have a very small brain and it is programmed for just basic requirements for survival such as breathing, digestion, reproduction etc. When under a threat, it will respond with one of the three actions: — face the threat, run away, or just freeze. This is called the 3F response or Fight-Flight-Freeze response.

Being an Engineer, I would say it is the BIOS. Doctor’s call is Archeo Cortex or Reptilian Brain.

Mammals have a bigger brain. It has space for memory and emotions. Love, anger, happiness, sadness… everything is seated there. For geeks, it is Memory Unit and Doctors call it Paleo Cortex or Mammalian Brain.

We, humans, have a bigger brain. Most of the gray matter consists of Cerebrum or the Neo Cortex. It is the ALU or Arithmetic and Logical Unit with RAM features. All logical decisions are taken here. Since it is built with an array of “if-but-loops” and complicated wiring, often our decisions take longer time and at times with errors.

We will be stressed in many situations, whether it is a tiger staring at you or your boss yelling, or you are facing a fast bowler in a cricket match. But in all such situations, the part of our brain called thalamus treat it as a threat. It will request the neocortex to take necessary action. As usual neocortex will start considering all the possibilities, permutations and combinations including financial and legal expenses. But Thalamus is not that patient. At some point, it will bypass neocortex and pass the signal directly to a pair of almond-shaped organs called Amygdala.

When this hijack happens, blood and oxygen supply to the neocortex is temporarily stopped.

Amygdala is the old-fashioned Army Commander. It knows only the 3F- fight flight or freeze. In a moment (within 50 milliseconds) it will take the decision and pump the necessary hormones and chemicals into the nervous system, and you are ready for fight or flight or freeze. Of course, there won’t be any rationale in your actions as the logical brain is already hijacked.

Due to the steroidal Hormones and chemicals pumped into your system, you will have lots of energy; you might even lift a truck. You don’t feel pain and hunger as your sympathetic nervous system is active (I will write about it later). You will be sweating due to the higher rate of  blood flow.   Yes, you are now under Amygdala Hijack.

Amygdala Hijack was an essential survival mechanism for the human race 20,000 years ago, but not so in the present age. Now, most of our stress is from home or work place. Under Amygdala hijack, people commit irrational and destructive actions including murder or suicide or get dumbstruck. Of course, this not at all a favorable response.

In a stressful situation, if you feel like having the below symptoms, be careful. You may be undergoing Amygdala Hijack.

  • Short breaths
  • Rapid heartbeats
  • high emotions (rage or extreme sadness)
  • Sweating, especially on palms

Better sit down and take a few long breaths. Oxygen supply to the brain will reset the neocortex and the hijack will be busted. Also, you can move around or indulge in some physical action to expend the extra energy created in the process.

  • Jay Thomas


Where Leaders Are Made