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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Amygdala Hijacks, Professor Gates and the Cambridge Police


Let me say from the outset, that this is one of those posts that I've debated writing. Let me also say what I'm not writing about. I'm not writing about racial profiling or who was right or wrong in the situation of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates being handcuffed and arrested by Cambridge, Mass. police officer Crowley in his home last week. You've probably heard the story by now that after returning to his home from a trip, Gates and his cab driver were jimmying a stuck door to get into the house. A neighbor who observed them working on the door called the police. After Gates was in his house, Officer Crowley arrived and asked Gates for his ID. This is the point at which their stories diverge in terms of who did or said what. One thing that is clear, however, is that the situation escalated to the point that Gates was led out of his house in handcuffs.

The key phrase for me is that last sentence is "the situation escalated." I've been doing a lot of reading on this case the past couple of days and have been surprised that I've seen nothing on the role that one or more amygdala hijacks likely played in the scene at Gates' house. If you're not familiar with this phrase, I believe it was first developed by Daniel Goleman the author of Emotional Intelligence and many other books on the topic. The amygdala is a small part of the brain located just above the spinal cord that stores emotional memories, particularly those associated with fear. It's where the fight or flight response resides. If you're in a situation that feels threatening to your physical being or your ego, it's the amygdala that stimulates your reaction to either fight or get out the heck out of there. The fight or flight response was probably really useful for our prehistoric ancestors who had to deal with the occasional sabre tooth tiger. It's usually not a particularly useful response in today's world. When the amygdala kicks in the adrenaline surge it releases can overpower or hijack the logical, critical thinking skills that come from the brain's frontal cortex.

Given the tense situation at Gates' house and the outcome that resulted, it's not hard to imagine that one or probably both of the men involved suffered from some form of amygdala hijack. We're all going to find ourselves in situations where we're going to feel threatened from time to time so what can we do to prevent a reaction that leads us to say or do something that ends badly? Here are a few tips:

  • Mental preparation: Sometimes we know in advance that we're going to be in a conversation or a situation that is likely to set us off. In those cases, it's a good idea to take some time in advance to ask yourself, "What am I trying to do in this situation and how do I need to show up to make that outcome likely? How do I want to respond when that person does something that pushes my anger button?" By thinking it through in advance you're using your frontal cortex and are preparing it to help keep your amygdala in check.
  • Notice your physical reaction: Sometimes we don't have time to prepare, we're just suddenly presented with a situation that makes us feel threatened in some way. When threatened or angered, most people have physical cues that they're headed down that path. It could be a tightening of your jaw, a flush feeling in your face, your vocal cords tightening up or something else. If you notice that, it's a cue to step back and move on to the next tip which is...
  • Breathe deeply and intentionally: This actually oxygenates your brain in a way that will reduce the effect of the chemicals stimulated by the amygdala and give your frontal cortex a chance to operate more normally.
  • State what's happening: If you can either say out loud or to yourself, "I'm getting angry here," you put yourself into more of a role of self-observer rather than actor. It can be easier to make thoughtful choices about what to do next if you can decouple yourself from being the actor.
  • Try to see the other person as a person rather than a threat: Once you've decoupled a little bit, ask yourself a few questions about the other person. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What do they want? Shifting over to their perspective will get you out of your own reactive mode and will put you in a better position to solve the problem.

So, amygdala hijacks. We've all had them at one time or another. What are some of your stories about them? What do you do to prevent them or stop them once they've started?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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