Clarification about How the Amygdala Impacts Behavior

Limbic system concept and human brain anatomy. Basal ganglia, amygdala, thalamus, cingulate gyrus and hypothalamus. Cerebral cortex and cerebellum medical infographic poster flat vector illustration

In my last blog I shared some of my thoughts about why Will Smith behaved as he did at the Oscars, suggesting his amygdala hijacked his behavior, a concept proposed by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. As I shared my thoughts with friends and colleagues, I received mostly strong opinions that a person has to be able to control impulsive behavior regardless of their trauma history.

I decided to check in with my friend and mentor, Dr. Bruce Perry, to see what his thoughts were. I was taken aback by information he shared with regard to how the amygdala actually does and doesn’t behave. I believe it is important to share this so we have some clarification with regard to what can happen when the brain senses potential danger, often connecting it to previous memories of abuse and/or neglect. Dr. Perry shared the following with me: “I believe you may have the neuroscience wrong…..but the ideas you are putting forth are important.“ He then suggested I read the following article and shared his professional perspectives about amygdala hijacking:  

“LeDoux is a very respected pioneer in the study of the amygdala. For some reason the amygdala ‘high jacking’ language has permeated the lay professional world about trauma – we need to be a bit more precise if we are going to actually ‘name’ specific mechanisms. “

In a subsequent email he said, “The number of people who think the amygdala is the ‘fear center’ and that ‘cortisol’ is the toxic agent in stress is tragically high. It will take a generation of teaching to undo these simple linear (but incorrect) mechanistic explanations about the ‘neuroscience’ of trauma – the problem with having these simple linear explanations is that they may be helpful to introduce simple concepts but they are inadequate in explaining the nuanced, complex, elements of developmental trauma.”

So we, including me, need to be very careful about simplifying brain information.

Right and left hemisphere of brain with mathematical formulas and colorful stripes. Creative and logical halves of human mind.

I admire Dr. Perry in how gently and convincingly he provided information to correct what I stated in my blog. He also shared his resources, and the professionals he trusts who have amazing credentials showing how deeply they have researched the complexities of the brain. We are truly blessed to have this wonderful professional to mentor and guide us lay folks who are striving to understand the most complex organ in the universe, our brains.

I still suspect there was some amygdala involvement in Will Smith’s behavior but based on the research Dr. Perry shared, many other parts of the brain and many more neurochemicals were involved. More than anything we cannot be so definitive in sharing what we think are facts but instead are opinions based on strong beliefs about how capable an individual is to control impulsive behaviors.

As I said in my previous blog, we all need to be held accountable for hurtful behaviors and to make amends. I also think we all deserve grace and compassion. It makes me think of the story in the Bible where Jesus tells the demanding crowd that a woman caught in adultery must be stoned for her immoral behavior: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” [John 8:7] Not one person in the crowd could claim to be without sin and all walked away. Maybe there is a lesson in this for us all when we consider condemning Will Smith’s actions.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. How do you respond to the information shared by Dr. Perry? What does it clarify for you?
  2. How might this information impact your opinions about Will Smith’s behaviors?
  3. How might learning more about the brain from Dr. Perry and the other experts he referenced impact how you think about how the brain functions, especially when someone has experienced significant childhood trauma?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute