Emotional hijacking

Young woman cryingIn light of the machinery of survival-based, emotional reactivity, let’s look more narrowly at what Daniel Goleman has called “emotional hijacking.”

The emotional circuits of your brain – which are relatively primitive from an evolutionary standpoint, originally developed when dinosaurs ruled the earth – exert great influence over the more modern layers of the brain in the cerebral cortex. They do this in large part by continually “packaging” incoming sensory information in two hugely influential ways:

  • Labeling it with a subjective feeling tone: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is primarily accomplished by the amygdala, in close concert with the hippocampus; this circuit is probably the specific structure of the brain responsible for the feeling aggregate in Buddhism (and one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness).
  • Ordering a fundamental behavioral response: approach, avoid, or ignore. The amygdala-hippocampus duo keep answering the two questions an organism – you and I – continually faces in its environment: Is it OK or not? And what should I do?

Meanwhile, the frontal lobes have also been receiving and processing sensory information. But much of it went through the amygdala first, especially if it was emotionally charged, including linked to past memories of threat or pain or trauma. Studies have shown that differences in amygdala activation probably account for much of the variation, among people, in emotional temperaments and reactions to negative information.

The amygdala sends its interpretations of stimuli – with its own “spin” added – throughout the brain, including to the frontal lobes. In particular, it sends its signals directly to the brain stem without processing by the frontal lobes – to trigger autonomic (fight or flight) and behavioral responses. And those patterns of activation in turn ripple back up to the frontal lobes, also affecting its interpretations of events and its plans for what to do.

It’s like there is a poorly controlled, emotionally reactive, not very bright, paranoid, and trigger-happy lieutenant in the control room of a missile silo watching radar screens and judging what he sees. Headquarters is a hundred miles away, also seeing the same screens — but (A) it gets its information after the lieutenant does, (B) the lieutenant’s judgments affect what shows upon the screens at headquarters, and (C) his instructions to “launch” get to the missiles seconds before headquarters can signal “stand down!”

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