Emotional hijacking: emotions overtaking reason

By Andrea Flores Esparza

We have all probably experienced situations where what we are saying does not exactly match with how we are feeling. It is in those situations when say “I am okay” with tears in our eyes or “I am not mad” with a tightening feeling throughout our body that our reasoning clashes with our emotions. As Daniel Goleman describes in his book “Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ” these two contradictory signals can sometimes arise due to habitation of ‘our two minds’, the rational and the emotional mind.1 The nature of having ‘two minds’ gives rise to possibility of these being in unison, in opposition or even overriding one another at different moments of our life. The ability to maintain a harmony between both minds is known as ‘emotional intelligence’ and it has been discovered to bring numerous benefits in both professional and personal aspects of life. But what happens when this harmony is not achieved? Emotional hijacking refers to moments where a certain stimulus trigger the emotional brain takes charge of one’s responses, blurring out the input from the rational mind.1,2

The consequences that emotional hijacking can cause are often rectifiable and they come in various shapes and forms such as losing your temper and accidentally screaming to your mum when she asks you to clean the dishes for the second time, or dropping something as you suddenly feel paralysed with fear after hearing an unusual noise. Nonetheless, there have been cases where these emotional hijacks have driven people to do things with much greater consequences, emphasising the importance of practicing emotional intelligence. A devastating story that exemplifies the effects of emotional hijacking is that of the formal convict, Richard Robles.

During his last burglary, Robles entered a home that he initially thought was empty. However, once inside the house he realised that both residents, Emilly Hoffert and Janice Wylie, were at home. He tied them up and was planning to let them free without any physical harm after he got some money, but he narrates that “[his mind] was like a ping-pong ball…[he] just blacked out and [he] panicked” after Emily threatened him to remember his face to accuse him to the police.1,3 Robles’ loss of emotional control led him to act upon his rage and fear, committing a crime that he never thought he commit—murder. He now finds himself facing a lifelong sentence. This demonstrates the power that the amygdala and other emotional circuits can have over the rational mind when an ‘emergency’ is detected. It is these types of situations that neuroscientists believe could be prevented if society incorporated emotional learning as much as much as cognitive learning.

We are mostly aware of our rational mind—that conscious, thoughtful and logical thinking we experience that enables us to analyse the facts and rationally understand the situation. On the other hand, however, there is also another powerful stream of thought that can be felt throughout our entire body which can occur both consciously or unconsciously—our emotional mind.1 Having emotional intelligence refers to the ability to evaluate, acknowledge and control of one’s emotions in order to coordinate a response that is in accordance with the rational mind. However, achieving this unison can be harder than one would expect due to architectural characteristics of the brain, imprinted memories from childhood and genetics. 

The work of many neuroscientists has collectively established our knowledge on brain structures involved in conscious and unconscious emotional and rational thinking—concluding that the neocortex is responsible for our conscious rational thinking, whilst structures in the limbic system are responsible for our emotions, which can be both conscious and unconscious3. Emotional hijacking, being fully unconscious, is believed to be coordinated by an almond-shaped limbic structure known to analyse potential threats, the amygdala.1,4,5 Notably, the work from Joseph E LeDoux on the amygdala’s neural circuits showed how the brain’s synaptic architecture granted more power to the amygdala than the neocortex, facilitating an emotional hijack.1 He found that sensory stimuli traveling from the thalamus is propagated to the amygdala via one synapse whilst to the neocortex via two synapses, hence prioritising the emotional response without the logical one.1,6 More specifically, when a threatening situation is perceived, the amygdala exacerbates the emotional response whilst suppressing the neocortex.6 Therefore, this information has lead neuroscientists to believe that emotions play a much stronger role in our everyday lives.1

The significance of this can be traced back to both genetics and evolution as well as childhood. The prioritised emotional response by the amygdala can be traced to Darwinian fitness, alert for any potential danger that would require a fight or flight response.7 These intense and biased neural circuits benefited our ancestors as they enabled them to quickly react to predators, choosing whether to stay and fight or escape them. However, nowadays our amygdala can perceive harmless signals as potential threats, hijacking our emotions and  driving us to produce a response that is probably very irrational for our modern world.7,8 More specifically, any stimuli that somehow reminds our brain of traumatic events can trigger strong emotional hijacks due to the neural interconnectivity between the amygdala and the hippocampus, the brain’s memory storage.1,7,8 These traumatic events are often engraved in our minds during childhood, and the nurturing we got during them would strongly influence our responses later in life1.  For instance, children nurtured by parents who attuned to their feelings and acknowledge them have been seen to have less emotional hijacks than those who were ignored by their parents.1 This evidence therefore suggest that the first years are life are crucial during the development emotional intelligence of a human being, emphasising the urgent need for emotional education for children.

As Daniel Goleman arguments in his book, emotional intelligence is likely to matter so much more in our lives than our cognitive intelligence as it not only governs our behaviour during social encounters, but also largely influences the way we perceive our surroundings and how we act upon our goals and desires. This discovery has attracted the attention of not only in the scientific world but also in the educational and business worlds as emotional intelligence predetermines someone’s capabilities. Despite saying that emotional intelligence is largely set during our childhood and by our genetics some research has found that people can actively re-educate their brains to be more emotionally intelligent—ranging size reduction of the amygdala through mindfulness and meditation.9 In sum, emotional hijacking can have devastating effects in the long run, emphasising the need for more research on the development of emotional intelligence and ways which it can be corrected when gone wrong.

References:

  1. Goleman D. Emotional intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc; 1996.
  2. How to respond more effectively to difficult patients or colleagues [Internet]. Aafp.org. 2021 [cited 5 November 2021]. Available from: https://www.aafp.org/journals/fpm/blogs/inpractice/entry/responding_to_difficult_people.html
  3. Messing P. The Career Girl Killer knows he’s going to rot in jail [Internet]. Nypost.com. 2021 [cited 5 November 2021]. Available from: https://nypost.com/2016/09/19/the-career-girl-killer-knows-hes-going-to-rot-in-jail/.
  4. Gallagher M, Chiba A. The amygdala and emotion. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 1996;6(2):221-227. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0959-4388(96)80076-6
  5. Baxter M, Croxson P. Facing the role of the amygdala in emotional information processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012;109(52):21180-21181. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1219167110
  6. Kunnanatt J. Emotional intelligence: The new science of interpersonal effectiveness. Human Resource Development Quarterly. 2004;15(4):489-495. Available from: https://download.clib.psu.ac.th/datawebclib/e_resource/trial_database/WileyInterScienceCD/pdf/HRQ/HRQ_5.pdf
  7. Pine D, Wise S, Murray E. Evolution, Emotion, and Episodic Engagement. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2021;178(8):701-714. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20081187
  8. LeDoux J. Evolution of human emotion. Evolution of the Primate Brain. 2012;:431-9. Available from: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53860-4.00021-0
  9. Taren A, Creswell J, Gianaros P. Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(5):e64574. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0064574

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