Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

The Amygdala Hijack

Alston Park, Napa Valley, California, USA

September 11, 2014

"You're never afraid of what you're afraid of. You're afraid of what you're afraid of reminds you of." ... Laurence Platt

This essay, The Amygdala Hijack, is the companion piece to The OK Way Is OK.

It is also the sequel to Being Upset: This Side of A Breakthrough.

It is also the prequel to New Pathways.

I am indebted to Gordon Murray who contributed material for this conversation.

It's the absolute one hundred and eighty degrees polar opposite of uninhibited, spontaneous, creative behavior. You know what it is. I know what it is. We've all experienced it - not just once, but rather many, many  times. And sometimes not just once but rather many, many times in just one day.

It's our constrained behavior whenever we're plugged in. It's our constrained behavior whenever we're upset. It's our constrained behavior whenever we're "on it"  (as Werner Erhard may have said). For the most part, it's what's commonly known as knee-jerk, automatic  behavior. Sometimes it's known as reactivated  behavior. Because it puts a limit on the full spectrum of behavior which is available to us at the time, the technical term for our behavior when we're being this way is ontologically functionally constrained  behavior. And the neurophysiological  term for that which is at the root of this behavior, is the amygdala hijack.


"The Amygdala Hijack"?  ...  Wow! What a simply marvelous  turn of phrase! Doesn't it just harken to the title of some great thriller movie? Like "The Andromeda Strain". Like "The China Syndrome". Like "The Taking of Pelham 123".

I can imagine the movie poster:

The Amygdala Hijack - You'll Be Sorry You Made Your Flight - starring Tom Cruise as The Hijacker

Don't laugh. That's actually a lot closer to the truth than it sounds.


The amygdala is a tiny organ within the brain's limbic system. The amygdala's job is to protect us from danger - both real and imagined. You could say it manages our survival  reflex. You could say it controls our self-preservation  instinct. You could call it lizard brain. You could say when we're in danger, it triggers the so-called "fight or flight"  mechanism. If we're in fight, the amygdala focuses all our resources on maximizing the fight, and limits all our other behavior. If we're in flight, the amygdala focuses all our resources on maximizing the flight, and limits all our other behavior also. All our resources can now be focused on surviving, be it fighting or fleeing, and avoiding the real or imagined danger.


Werner proposes there's actually a third  option in the "fight or flight" mechanism:

Faced with danger ie faced with a real or imaginary threat to survival, you could fight, or you could flee, ... or  ... you could simply freeze.

So: fight, flight, or freeze.


Here's how the amygdala hijack works - in other words, here's how the amygdala takes over  from the cerebral cortex  when our survival is threatened (in the phrase "amygdala hijack", it's the cerebral cortex's control which is hijacked by the amygdala):

Sensory input from the world goes to both the cerebral cortex and  to the amygdala but it reaches the amygdala significantly faster  than it reaches the cerebral cortex. This is so the amygdala can first assess if there's any danger ie if there are any threats to survival. The determination of whether or not there are any threats to survival can not be left up to the cerebral cortex:  if there were  a threat to survival, and if determining that threat were left up to the cerebral cortex, it would already be too late.

If there's a threat, the amygdala instantly makes preparations for fighting or fleeing (or freezing) by triggering reactions which flood the body with adrenalin, and which also flood the cerebral cortex with neurochemicals, both of which facilitate meeting the threat, or avoiding it entirely.

Once this has happened, any new sensory input reaching the cerebral cortex isn't responded to normally, but rather as a threat. The cool, clear thinking of the cerebral cortex and its control, has now effectively been hijacked by the amygdala. And here's the thing: once the cerebral cortex's control has been hijacked by the amygdala, the cerebral cortex responds to whatever's  going on as if it's a threat, whether it actually is a threat or whether (and especially whenever) it isn't.

It gets worse. The amygdala responds just as similarly to physical threats as it does to psychological and social threats. In fact it responds just as similarly to the mere hint  of physical threats as it does to the mere hint of psychological and social threats. With the body now flooded with adrenalin and the cerebral cortex now flooded with neurochemicals, there's scant opportunity for any productive psychological and social interactions to occur, at least not for the time being anyway: it takes at least thirty minutes after the originating incident (which is to say it takes at least thirty minutes after the originating incident without any further similar new incidents)  for the adrenalin in the body and the neurochemicals in the cerebral cortex, to dissipate back to normal levels.


Haven't you noticed thirty minutes is about the time you need to get off it, once you're reactivated? Asked more familiarly, haven't you noticed thirty minutes is about the time you need to chill out completely, once you're pissed off?


"OK Laurence" you may say, "couldn't we learn from our mistakes ie couldn't we learn from our mistakes of automatically becoming reactivated by non-threatening events as if they're threatening, merely because they're similar to / remind us of an event in the distant past which actually was  threatening?". In theory, yes we could. But in actuality, once the amygdala is in control, like "2001: A Space Odyssey"'s  HAL would do in order to preserve it's stranglehold on behavior, it will do anything  to inhibit learning. This manifests in our reluctance to listen to criticism from others (because it's too difficult to do), and / or in our reluctance to confront our own errors (because it's too painful to do). So the automatic, knee-jerk behavior patterns persist. That's the bad news. And we're stuck with it.

It all begins to sound pretty hopeless, doesn't it? And (make no error) it is  hopeless. So you may as well just let it be. And the beauty of it is once you can just be  with the stuckness of it, an opportunity to invent a new possibility for being, begins to emerge.

Inside of this new possibility for being, we can notice how the amygdala hijack works. We can notice the predictable sequence of events which trigger our knee-jerk reactions. And we can notice the cerebral cortex, although it receives sensory from the world much slower than the amygdala receives it, does have some control over the amygdala. So with practice, we can strengthen this control.

This practice is not unlike the practice required for swimming and / or for running, in that it follows the tenet "no pain, no gain". To build control over swimming and / or over running, you must be willing to move toward discomfort, and you must be willing to (at least to a degree) experience physical pain. Similarly, to build control over knee-jerk reactions, you must be willing to move toward discomfort, and you must be willing to experience psychological  and emotional  pain by being willing to confront them yourself, and / or by being willing to take correction and / or coaching from others.

The good news is that's actually not as difficult as it sounds. Your willingness to take it on, starts with recognizing what it costs you to be run by the amygdala hijack.


The presentation, delivery, and style of The Amygdala Hijack are all my own work.

The ideas recreated in The Amygdala Hijack, were first presented to me by Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen, Steve Zaffron, and Kari Granger in their scholarly paper titled Course Materials for: Being a Leader and the Effective Exercise of Leadership - An Ontological / Phenomenological Model.

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