amygdala hijack
n. An immediate, overwhelming, and usually inappropriate emotional response to a perceived threat or emergency.

Example Citations:
Psychologists call this an amygdala hijack, a point at which the most unevolved part of our brains — the amygdala — overrules every other civilised impulse and quite simply, goes nuts.
—Natalie Reilly, "Is crying at work career suicide?," Daily Life, April 3, 2013

In the mid 1990's, I was introduced to the concept of an "amygdala hijack." The amygdalae are two small almond-shaped structures in the brain that among other things, monitor environmental and social threats and allow us to respond reflexively when perceived levels get too high. They figuratively hijack our volitional choice by redirecting behavioral control to more primitive responses such as fight, flight and freeze.
—Janet Crawford, quoted in Victor W. Hwang, "4 Ways You Can Innovate Better, According to Neuroscience," Forbes, March 29, 2013

Earliest Citation:
[The amygdala] is the brain's center for emotional memory, for emotional reactivity, and which has the ability to scan everything that's happening to us moment to moment to see if it perceives a threat. [If it does,] it mobilizes the entire brain instantly in an amygdala hijack, the signs of which are three: One, you have a very intense emotional reaction two, it's very sudden and three, when the dust settles, you realize that it was very inappropriate.
—Daniel Goleman, quoted in Jennifer J. Salopek, "Train Your Brain: Part 1 of 2," Training and Development, October 1, 1998

The coining of this phrase is credited to psychologist Daniel Goleman with some (*cough* Wikipedia *cough*) claiming that the first use comes in his famous book Emotional Intelligence. Goleman doesn't use the phrase in that book, but he does come close:

Such emotional explosions are neural hijackings...a neural takeover which, as we shall see, originates in the amygdala.
—Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, September 12, 1996

Related Words: