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Amygdala Hijacks, Professor Gates and the Cambridge Police

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in The Next Level

Gates2 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.

Amygdala 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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…
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris August 3, 2009 at 2:43 pm

It’s disappointing how few comments here are remotely germane to the original topic.


Jeff S July 25, 2009 at 9:57 pm

Someone should have watched Chris Rock’s “How not to get your *** kicked by the police!”


Brandon July 25, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Gates is a racism.I think that the cop was right to arrested Gates. I wish CNN will stop painting the cop as the bad guy! He was just doing his job. Gates and people like Gates, that lives in the past and scream racism, are hurting the American people. We have people dying in Iraq. Gates was wrong wrong wrong!!!


Myalli July 25, 2009 at 5:42 pm

I would make no assumptions in this situation. I’ve seen first hand what police do to people and how they lie about what they have done.


Dare July 25, 2009 at 9:16 am

The fact that you do a dangerous job on behalf of citizens doesn’t give an expressway to not stay within the confines of the law and common sense. What the Prof. did was not illegal. True, officers don’t know who a criminal might look like but if this is the same way all officers reacted to issues, the name POLICE OFFICER would be known by all and sundry by now to always leave a bitter taste in your mouth after you have any form of encounter with them. Since that is not the case, it is therefore pertinent to look into the conduct of this particular officer since he swore to serve and protect. In this case he did not serve and protect Prof Gates, he went the other way on him. THIS IS THE ISSUE PEOPLE HAVE WITH THIS OCCURENCE. IT IS PLAIN OBVIOUS TO SEE. ITS NOT HARD AT ALL.


Dare July 25, 2009 at 9:04 am

I have heard a few statements from both Professor Gates and officer Crowley and have come to the conclusion that what President Obama said wasn’t a stretch at all. We can say that the woman that called in the burglary was racially biased or was doing neighborhood watch, she has her right to believe whatever she wants. She is just a citizen; however, a police officer is supposed to know the law and how to interpret confrontational matters of this kind. He is not paid by tax money to implement racial judgement. I have an senario that I believe played out that faithful day. A just spoke on CNN yesterday say and I paraphrase, “There is no law that states you have to be nice to anyone in your own home”
The police showed up at Prof. Gates home, officer Crowley says to the Prof. they are investigating a possible burglary. They both go inside to find identification. All the while, Prof Gates is fuming believing his comportment and eloquency should have been enough for the office to know that he is someone not to throw around like the bum he was thought to be. None of that persuaded the officer so he provided the ID. The officer got the ID and called it in, discovered the prof is whom he said he was finally. By this time the prof was way agitated by the officers refusal to address him as a worthy citizen. Being around profs for a while, I know one of the main arsenals in their chest is their intellectual prowess. I believe a deluge of this is what he used to intellectually prove to the police officer that he was better than officer Crowley. The officer felt stripped of his ego but not his authority so he found a way to make his ego recuperate which was to prove in a STUPID way that, no matter how many degrees or six figures you make, I still call the shots, even though officer Crowley knew his story wasn’t straight forward enough to be considered without foul play. I believe it started out as a little racial bias which then mushroomed into a bruised ego on officer Crowley’s part. That is why he arrested Prof. Gates to prove a point which according to him was, “You are not better than me”.
I am sure if they looked into the past of Officer Crowley, it would be discovered that he has a big ego.


patrick July 25, 2009 at 12:42 am

It is absolutely choking to hear people feel offended for something awful like this!!! Gates was at his home and showed his ID..but instead of walking away and exert self-control the police arrested him!!!…by the way, why did the neighbor called 911…simply because he saw a black man “breaking in”…again, does the so called neighbor is unaware of his “black” neighbor living just next door!!!…did he not recognize him…instead of helping he called 911…people are absolutely so fearful of themselves then ther’re trying to project these fears to others…If he (the so called neighbor) is a REAL neighbor…hwe must have known Gates and would have shut his mouth but instead of he chooses to call police…and again the pattern of balck being treated unfairly around the planet and not only in the States is a c-r-u-c-i-a-l f-a-c-t!!! Who dares deny this E-V-I-D-E-N-C-E….Can you hide the sun with your bare hands??? Give us a break and face your demons…and become at last an AGENT OF CHANGE…HARMONY WITHOUT BIAS AND PEACE AMONG MANKIND…’CAUSE WE’RE ALL THE SAME.


Maurice July 24, 2009 at 11:53 pm

I couldn’t agree with this article more. I think one of the most important things that is being overlooked is that when a group has had a rocky relationship with police officers, they are primed to be on guard and exhibit a fight or flight response. I am a black doctoral candidate who has been stopped and asked for ID when entering my own apartment (after a white unidentified male had the door held open for him by the same officer). My knee jerk reaction was to bellow, “Then step aside, officer, and let me use my key!” After retrieving my mail, the officer sheepishly stepped aside, and the entire situation was diffused. Ordinarily, I do not yell at anyone and I have the utmost respect and affection for people who risk their lives for others. But, having lived through riots in the 60s as a child when I didn’t know whether to fear the black nationalists or the police more, I admit that I can’t be expected to have a cool head when I feel barred from my own dwelling ostensibly because I “don’t belong.” Nor am I always “rational” when walking the dark streets of Chicago and a group of youth approach me. At the same time, if I have my wits about me, I try not to intimidate an understandingly high strung officer should I be stopped for a possible traffic violation. Amygdala hijack, indeed. I hope this incident helps us move to a place where well meaning citizens are primed to react to well meaning police officers as a source of comfort.


Steve July 24, 2009 at 9:56 pm

I think one, very important, rule was overlooked: Always comply with a Law Enforcement Officer’s instructions.

It is pointless, and wrong to argue or resist the Officer. For once in the history of the media, try and look at it from the Officer’s point of view. Criminals don’t like police and have been known to kill them. Police officers do not know what those criminals look like. It is extremely dangerous to assume that everyone is innocent – this is how officers die. If you have never dealt with a drug-addicted or mentally unstable criminal who doesn’t wish to get caught, then don’t judge those who deal with them on a day to day basis from your peaceful, comfortable lazy-boy recliners. Instead, why don’t you put your life on the line every day for a salary that barely keeps you above the poverty level for people who dislike you simply because you are an authority figure. There are some officers who have no business being in Law Enforcement, but those are few and far between and should not be the basis for judging those who take pride in what they do, in spite of an ungrateful client base.


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