The World of Work Project

The Amygdala and Amygdala Hijacking

The Amygdala is the brain’s emotional center. It is associated with stress, fear and anxiety and it has the ability to start an “amygdala hijack” , shutting down rational thoughts and launching the brain’s “fight or flight” response.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The Amygdala

The amygdala is a small, almond shape part of the brain that plays a large role in our emotions and our emotional intelligence. Humans actually have two on them, one for each side of the brain. They are part of the brain’s limbic system, within the forebrain, and are the brain’s emotional centers as well as core centers for memory formation, particularly emotional memories.

What the amygdala does

One of the amygdala’s roles is to assign emotions to received sensory stimulus. When humans receive sensory information (e.g. sight, sound) the messages first pass from the sensory organs (e.g. eyes, ears) to the thalamus (don’t worry what this is). The thalamus then splits the signals and passes them on to both the rational thinking neo-cortex and to the amygdala.

The pink bits are your limbic system and your amygdala is the almond shaped bit at the bottom. The green part is your rational neo-cortex, and the blue your old brain-stem.

The amygdala receives the signals and processes them, by comparing them to historic memories, milliseconds before the neo-cortex receives and processes the information.

If the Amygdala identifies a form of threat within the signal, it triggers an adrenal “fight of flight” response, shutting down the rational neo-cortex’s instructions and preparing the body for immediate physical action. If the Amygdala identifies no threat, then the neo-cortex remains in control. Daniel Goleman refers to this process as an “amygdala hijack” in his book, “Emotional Intelligence”.

Why this matters

Everyone experiences their own version of the “fight or flight” response from time to time when triggered by specific stimulus. It could be a raised voice, it could be a sudden movement, or it could even be spotting an error in a piece of work that you’ve completed.

Your brain isn’t always a rational, cheery chap. Sometimes it’s trying to keep you alive at all cost.

When people are in their “fight of flight” modes, their bodies are geared for action, not for thinking. They may behave irrationally, and certainly will not be good at rational, detailed thinking.

As an individual, being aware of when you enter your own “fight or flight” mode will help you manage and think your way out of it. Likewise, when working with or leading others, knowing when they are in their “fight of flight” modes will help you know when to step away, work effectively with them and maintain and build effective working relationships.  These skills are key parts of emotional intelligence.

The World of Work Project View

While there is absolutely no need to understand neuroscience to be effective in your career (unless you’re a doctor!), a basic understanding of where our thoughts and emotions come from may help individuals improve their emotional intelligence, respond to and manage their emotions, empathize and work well with with others and respond well in difficult, emotional situations.

In our experience, emotional intelligence is a hugely important skill in the world of work and one that nearly everyone can get better at. We recommend that everyone learn more about their own emotional responses to events and that everyone tries to develop their emotional intelligence. These skills will only become more important as automation and AI play increasing roles in the world of work.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on work on emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman, as published in his book: “Emotional Intelligence“.


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