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Amygdala hijack

Amygdala hijack

Topic |  

Amygdala hijack

Topic |  
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As if the pandemic is not enough to mar our anticipation of Christmas, we were jolted to see on social media how a cop helplessly shot in the head a mother and son, apparently in some sort of altercation with him. 

The scene was gruesome. The pandemonium at the background is unmistakable. It was surreal to watch the events on video. I wonder how it was for the spectators and characters seeing the murder on plain sight in broad daylight. 

Basing on the video, the tension is obvious. There were shouting and hurling of expletives. There were children even. And it was the young daughter of the policeman who appeared to demand angrily to the mother (speaking in English) to let her son go and be apprehended by his father policeman.

The mother replied defiantly and in a taunting voice said, “I don’t care…eer,eer, err,” This triggered the already agitated policeman father and shot both on the head, and took another shot when their lifeless bodies were already on the ground.

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Evidently, it was anger going awry. It was a case of an amygdala hijack. Intense emotions overtook reasoning and logic. Consequences and future oriented thinking were stymied and the automatic stress response took over. 

The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for processing strong emotions like fear, pleasure, or anger. When it is triggered, it activates the stress response in the body, the commonly called fight-flight response. As this happens, many changes occur in the system such as blood pressure going up, tightening of the muscles, dilation of the eyes, galvanic skin response, etc., as the body prepares for action.

However, another part of the brain, the frontal lobes kind of moderate the response of the limbic system, where the amygdala is a part of. The frontal lobes allow us to process and think about our emotions. 

When we sense danger, the amygdala automatically triggers the stress response, to fight or flee. But at the same time, the frontal lobes also process the information if indeed danger is present and determine the most logical response.

In mild and moderate cases, the frontal lobe most of the time overrides the reaction of the amygdala, and we respond appropriately. But in extreme cases, the response is automatic and we find ourselves at the mercy of our primitive coping mechanisms. 

When we look at the video, there appears to be no immediate danger, especially considering that the policeman was armed. Although there was some loud shouting, the policeman could have easily neutralized it. His knowledge and training should have allowed himself to calm down and respond appropriately.

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But he appears to be a trigger-happy kind of man. Based on his profile, he was involved in homicide and other misconduct although all of them were dismissed for lack of evidence. 

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“I got carried away by my emotions,” is our usual justification when we commit something violable. This claim is very valid. Our emotions are very powerful. As a matter of fact, it is emotions that move us to do something great or grim.

But we are not all our emotions. We are not only our amygdala. We are also our cerebrum and frontal lobes, and cortex. We are thinking beings capable of managing and even controlling ourselves even in extreme conditions. 

Policemen are trained to manage themselves in grueling situations. Because their job is highly stressful, they are supposed to be masters of stress and anger management. 

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Our anger has adaptive functions. But left on its own, it is dangerous and destructive. Let us all take time to harness the power of our emotions to foster love and peace and not anger and violence.

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