She’s Lost Control: Amygdala Hijack?!

She’s Lost Control

In considering the why, and now the how of better implementing tools made available in music psychology, I am consistently struck by how very complex our musical preferences and responses are as humans.While avoiding the attempt to craft any groundbreaking expository theories,  I’d like to visit a motivation of mine in the field whilst bringing attention to an old Joy Division favorite. First, I will disaggregate the various schools of thought that overlap in this field of music psychology.  What do the following have in common?

1. Existential and phenomenological psychology

2. Jungian personality dichotomies

3. Psychological resilience

4. Malabou’s concept of neuroplasticity

5. Psychoanalysis

6. Advances in the neurological study of fear

7. Critical understandings of cultural and societal treatments of emotion

8. Music

In addition to composing the framework of my greatest motivators toward an existential understanding of life, I’d posit that not only do they contribute to the eventual pragmatic method I seek to establish in a clinical therapeutic setting, they are necessary in totality. The more I engage a dialogue regarding the concept as a whole, the more I am struck by just how much need be taken into consideration as well as shedding some light into my peculiar distaste for ‘music therapy’ as a solitary solution. Though music therapy practices have occasionally been proven effective for various wellness processes in young children as well as adults, I remain skeptical. I would argue that one need explore deeper into the psyche, history and personality of the patient. Far too often we see music therapy studies carried out on young adults in particular that prove completely blanketed – with the total exclusion of considerations such as gender, individual neuronal histories and variance in personality.

To come quickly to the point, I recently posed a vital question: In the occurrence of a (negative) amygdala “takeover”, what is the immediate goal? Is it to utilize music to objectify the patient’s feelings, or to quickly placate and soothe the individual’s distress (particularly if the patient suffers a history of auto-destructive behavior)? My response to the above is both, but objectively more as well. Here are a few thoughts to consider which barely skim the surface in composing the process of discerning what type of method and music should be used:

  1. History of Mental Illness (i.e. What are the immediate concerns? Has the patient demonstrated a capability or propensity for harm to self or others?)
  2. Medical and Psychiatric History (Has there been any type of surgery or modification in brain chemistry or anatomy?)
  3. Socioeconomic Background (What types of music to which the patient been exposed as a part of their ‘nurture’ upbringing, and the extent of music appreciation in their cultural worldview?)
  4. Religious/Familial/Educational background (i.e. unconscious and conscious conditioning-in what context has the patient learned or been taught to treat music? Is it a daily ritual, mainly a social luxury, rite of a religious tradition, utilized in education, etc.)
  5. Personality (What characteristics of extroverted or introverted personality types are being displayed?)
  6. Musical Preferences and Affect Regulation (How and to what extent are they affected by repetition, unfamiliar versus familiar rhythms and meters, Eastern/Western depictions of consonance and dissonance, ‘major’ versus ‘minor’ tonalities, etc.)
  7. Musical Propensity and Skill in Practice or Performance
  8. Existential values and spiritual/moral motivations of the patient

On the tip of the iceberg of gaining a general understanding of the patient, we see already that the answer lies beyond sitting down with a troubled teenage male, playing a bit of Mendelssohn and assuming to illicit the disclosure of an exhaustive account for discord with his father. Establishing a rapport and fluency over the course of time, making the effort to implement music he responds to, and eventually gain an empathetic understanding of how to meet him on his level, however, is something I’m interested in.

I’d like to now return for a moment to the ultimate motivator and the necessity for this type of process. When I speak of the amygdala hijack, I am referring to the very instance in which the fight or flight response occurs. Although the ‘limbic system’ was long perceived to be an emotional center of the brain, the amygdala has been found to be the main ‘limbic’ area involved clearly implicated in the processing of threats. A ‘hijack’ occurs when our brain responds to threats; devoid of reasonable consideration or logic. Typically, when we are presented a stimulus, three events occur: we sense (visual, aural, olfactory, touch, etc.), we process, and we react. These occur in rapid succession. At the moment the threat is processed, the amygdala can override the neo-cortex, a center of higher thinking which deals with sensory perception and motor commands, and initiate an impulsive response (which holds the potential of negatively producing instances of destructive behavior and emotional irrationality). Because it is easier for the amygdala to control the neo-cortex by arousing various brain areas than it is for the neo-cortex to control the amygdala, the ability to shut down anxiety producing hormones and emotions is no simple feat, and proves an exquisite challenge in undertakings of crafting a therapy.

One theory (enter elements of LeDoux, Goleman and Damasio) is that if we can slow or somehow manipulate this hijack process, we may buy ourselves the time it takes to properly process the stimulus, and respond in an appropriate, healthy fashion. LeDoux was hopeful about the possibility of learning to control the amygdala’s impulsive role in emotional outbursts: “Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go. What therapy does is teach you how to control it – it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotion about it remains in a subdued form.” My theory? We can do it with music.

In closing, I’d like to briefly provide an example of my conviction that the above considerations are essential for a beneficial psychologist/patient relationship. It would seem safe to assume that were we to randomly sample a group of 1,000 healthy, typically functioning women age 18-30, and narrow from there the women who have an extensive knowledge and listening history of the English ‘post-punk’ band Joy Division, we would be presented with an entire spectrum of emotional affect regarding participant’s specific and individual musical associations. Obviously this study is strictly hypothetical primarily in that were we to stop there, the comorbidity and variables would be obscene. My point is, it is almost guaranteed that there will be few in this clinical group who associate exclusively a strictly negative or strictly positive sentiment, and valence and arousal reaction to any one specific selected musical styling of Joy Division. Human experiences, associations and implicit reactions are unique, thus requiring a highly individualized method of interplay. I leave you now with a narrative appropriate to the study itself, with the hope of one day creating a methodical approach designed to alleviate the anxious and distressed of this very sentiment.


5 thoughts on “She’s Lost Control: Amygdala Hijack?!

  1. Hi Diana,
    I suspect one could do what you are trying to do with misic (prevent the ‘hijack’). The impossibility I see is that how do you do it in re life? When my brian is stimulated to react in fight or flight I simply can’t take the time to find my Hamdel Concerto Grosso op 6 recording to prevemt the hijack.
    Perhaps conditioning of some sort might work but what how does one use musoc in a practical way to work in immediate situation?
    Of coirse in a slower circumstamce we do it all the time. If I ‘feel’ in a certain mood I cam select a music to affect me.

  2. Hi Dell, thanks for the comment. Without delving too deep into my proposal just now, I can share with you the brief ‘discussion’ portion of my thesis.

    “In practical application, musical stimuli could be presented in repeated psychotherapeutic settings that would eventually condition the subject to overcome impulsive, dysfunctional, or harmful behavior by maintaining control in the event of increased amygdala activity resulting in destructive behaviour. Additional research in this area could focus on musical intervention with acute psychiatric disorders and psychosis.”

    I know this will seem a bit vague, but suffice it to say it would be through a combination of neuroimaging and a consistent client-therapist relationship that this kind of prevention would take place. Because you’re very right, simply trying to search for something specific in the event of a hijack isn’t practical. The deeper I go in to this research, the more I will be able to share. But until someone picks it up, I need to try and use discretion academically and professionally.

  3. Hey Diana,

    It is good reading your thoughts again; I’m sorry I haven’t been frequenting the blogosphere too often lately—I have been very busy with my own projects. This was an interesting post, and I wish you the best in your academic endeavors.

    I want to pose a problem to you, because I am interested in what your response will be. Please understand that I don’t mean this in any sense as a criticism of your current work; however the problem is of such a nature as shall inherently examine the foundations of this work, as it is a retreat from the current operational paradigm into a more theoretical paradigm of greater scope.

    In the examination of the event of an amygdala hijack, it can be said that there must be a cause, an instigator, of such an event. This cause could be described as the event of the individual in question perceiving an object that is incompatible with the syntax of their psyche. This object could be anything from an external event, situation, experience, phrase, image, etc. to an internal idea, thought, feeling, emotion, etc., but whatever it is, the individual first perceives it and then reacts. As the object is incompatible with the individual’s psyche, the individual is unable to successfully process a conscious reaction to the object, leading to a “fallback,” much akin to the execution of a catch-all error event in computer programming. This error event is the amygdala hijack, the primal and instinctual reaction to a situation or an experience that is deemed threatening. These primal processes take control of the individual, in order to “rescue” him/her from the situation at hand, so that the individual may be relieved from the normal demand of the psyche to consciously determine a course of action.

    Now, this sequence of events is, in my opinion, representative of an extreme case, for it is apparent that not all encounters with objects that are incompatible with the individual’s psyche result in such an event as an amygdala hijack. For instance, consider the event of a culture-clash between two individuals, each belonging to a culture vastly variant from that of the other. While this event may come as a surprise to one of these individuals, it rarely, to my knowledge, will result in such an event as an amygdala hijack. The question, therefore, is, what are the conditions that must be met in order for such an individual to react to the perception of such an object with such an event as an amygdala hijack.

    I would theorize that there are at least three such conditions. First, the individual must feel that the object in question belongs to the same category as does a component or conglomeration of components of his/her psyche that are perceived as having a high degree of significance. In other words, the individual must feel that the object is relevant to some aspect of his/her psyche that is a significant part of “who he/she is,” i.e. a defining attribute of his/her personality. Second, the individual must feel that the object in question is of a significant degree of inherent meaningfulness relative to that component or conglomeration of components of the individual’s psyche that the object has been identified with (This meaningfulness might also be “projected.”). To give an example, were I a devout Christian, I might be given a copy of the Book of Mormon by members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and think very little of it, but then suppose that I had a close relative who died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and someone gave me a copy of the Quran. Though the two events may be deemed to both relate to my Christian faith, I may be more severely effected by the latter event than the former, as I perceive it as of inherently greater significance with relation to my beliefs. Third, the psyche of the individual must lack a coping mechanism of sufficient quality to be able to permit a conscious reaction to the object. This is merely a comparison of degrees or values; the degree of “force” generated by the object, inherited from the degree of significance of the component or conglomeration of components of the psyche to which it is related and from the degree of inherent meaningfulness that is perceived, is compared to the degree of quality of the coping mechanism. If the coping mechanism is of sufficient quality, it will be capable of suppressing the force generated by the object. If the force generated by the object is too great in comparison to the quality of the coping mechanism, then the coping mechanism will fail to successfully suppress the object, thus leading to an error event such as an amygdala hijack.

    Now we come to the really interesting part of all of this. What it seems to me that the vast majority of the psychiatric and scientific communities are focusing their research and practice upon is the development and enhancement of the quality of coping mechanisms, in order that when an incompatible object is encountered by an individual psyche, that psyche may be trained to react to it in order to prevent the occurrence of a resort to a primal response. However, if we examine the chain of causality outlined above, we will note that the ultimate prerequisite for any such occurrence is that the individual psyche in question must be composed of such a syntax of components as to render the object in question incompatible. Were the psyche of a different syntax, one that would permit the successful assimilation of the previously incompatible object, then there would never be cause to affect or utilize a coping mechanism. Of course, the reason that the psychiatric and scientific communities have so focused their research upon the development and enhancement of the quality of coping mechanisms is that such an effort is much more simple than the undertaking of actually modifying the entire syntax of an individual’s psyche, but I would posit that our modern degree of comprehension of the psyche has reached a point at which the latter is a very real possibility, if only we would devote more effort to its pursuit.

    Ultimately, it comes down to a question of methodology. Do we attempt to help the afflicted by promoting the development and enhancement of the quality of coping mechanisms? Or do we abandon such a pursuit and move our focus further back along the chain of causality to address the distal cause? Perhaps we could simultaneously pursue both efforts; yet I am concerned that the former may be as though we are leading the patient down a path the termination of which is, though of a higher quality than their origin, yet far short of that degree of quality that may potentially exist had we taken the other path. This is the problem I pose. As always, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    Also, I absolutely love Joy Division. They are epic. 🙂

    Love you much, hope I didn’t bore you, and I’ll visit your blog soon and read through your new stuff as soon as I can; I really am sorry that I don’t have as much time for this stuff as I’d like 😦

    Your friend,


  4. Daniel: absolutely fantastic question. Could not help but say that. Until I have the time to sit down and answer further, let me leave you with this: there is a very real and pragmatic reason I am also interested in psychoanalysis 🙂 Very much so, and you’ve made an excellent point concerning the syntax of the psyche. I should probably just write a new post in response to your question. Brilliant, and as always, thank you!

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