YouLearn | Emotional Intelligence and the brain

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You drive a couple of blocks to find a free parking space, you finally spot one, you hurry there and just before you want to drive in, another car quickly takes the free spot right before your nose.  Alarm!

You have a meeting with an important client. You are perfectly prepared and the moment you click the «join» button in Teams, your internet connection is lost. Your throat feels tight for a moment, your heart rate is rising, and you may even have to gasp for breath.

Enter: the amygdala hijack.
Emotionele intelligentie You Connect

What exactly that is and how it can disrupt our relationships with others. The Tipping Point carefully explained how the brain does not simply exist but is a particularly plastic mass of tissue that you can roughly divide into three sub-brains: the reptile brain, the mammalian brain and the human brain.

It turns out that the alarm phase that goes on in your brain when you lose your parking space or your internet connection goes down is not always activated correctly by the reptilian part of our brain. The brain detects a threat and triggers a response as if you were in mortal danger. This happening where you react disproportionately violently and emotionally to what is actually happening was first identified in 1996 Daniel Goleman in "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ". He called this the "amygdala hijack", an apt description for the takeover of your reactions by the "reptilian brain". Along either side of the brain hemispheres, we appear to have an almond-shaped particle that goes into alarm mode every time a threat is perceived. When the amygdala kicks in, all the energy of our brain goes to that threat and it becomes very difficult for the brain to respond rationally: it is "held hostage " by the amygdala. Now this alarm centre is vitally important when you are face to face with real danger to life and it is good that you immediately go into fight or flight mode at that moment. Only you are not in mortal danger when you lose a parking space or your internet connection goes down.

At such times, you need emotional intelligence. The ability to recognise and dose your own emotions. And moreover, being able to deal constructively with the other person's alarms, emotions and amygdala hijacks.

And this is where our prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role, helping us make decisions and control impulses. The alarm goes off, indeed, but we have to decide for ourselves how to react. Given that the reptilian brain apparently takes over from us at such a moment, it may help to wait a few seconds for your prefrontal cortex, which was temporarily switched off, to come back online.

What reaction do you allow yourself? Jump out of your car and scold the other driver in scenario 1? Stare paralysed at the disappearing Wi-Fi signal and take no action in scenario 2? Those don't seem like the best options.

The experts of The Tipping Point the explained us, how to effectively reprogram our brain.

There do appear to be some ways of dealing with extreme stress situations emotionally intelligently. By rationally naming what is happening, for example, or taking a step back and literally counting to ten, allowing the chemicals in your blood to break down again through the alarm phase. You can also ask yourself afterwards what exactly was the trigger for your reaction. How did you react? What is the root cause of your reaction? So that you can teach your neuroplastic brain to neutralise the amygdala hijack in exciting but not life-threatening situations.

Fascinating subject matter! And interesting to apply the next time you tend to tilt in a meeting with your colleagues or a discussion with your partner.

Like to know more about this interesting mechanism?
"Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ", Daniel Goleman

Source: "What to know about amygdala hijack", Adam Rowden, 19 April 2021, Medical News today.

Authored by Birgit De Smedt - 18 Jan 2023

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