Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Amygdala in sport

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Amygdala in sport:
What role does the amygdala and amygdala hijack play in sport?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever felt that you have overreacted, lashed out in response and then, upon reflection on your actions, realised that your reaction was excessive? There is a name for this; it is called an "amygdala hijack". The amygdala is often referred to as the "emotional centre" of the brain. The amygdala is responsible for more than just emotion, but also has a role in memories and decision making.

The amygdala plays an important role in sport and the amygdala hijack occurs in sport. Think of the last time you heard of a professional athlete lashing out in an uncharacteristic, disproportionate way to something insignificant. The chances are that this was the result of an amygdala hijack. There are straightforward measures that can be taken to prevent an amygdala hijack, which only take a short amount of time.

Learning objectives

This chapter should give you a better understanding of:

  • What the amygdala is and what it does;
  • What an amygdala hijack is and why it happens;
  • What role the amygdala and the amygdala hijack play in sport; and
  • How to prevent an amygdala hijack

The amygdala[edit | edit source]

The location of the amygdala in the brain
Figure 1: The location of the amygdala in the brain

The amygdala is an almond-shaped group of nuclei located in the temporal lobe of the brain which is associated with motivation and emotion. The amygdala consists of two major divisions: the basolateral complex (basolateral amygdala), which can be further divided into lateral, basal and accessory nuclei, all of which are associated with the cerebral cortex; and the extended amygdala, a continuum made up of the nucleus of the amygdala, the lateral bed nucleus of stria terminails (which is related to stress and behavioural responses) and certain parts of the substantia innominata (which is mostly white and grey matter) (Davis, 1992). Stimulation of different parts of the amygdala generates different responses. Stimulation of one part of the amygdala produces a response of anger, while stimulation of another part can produce fear and defensive behaviour (Blandler, 1988). Stimulation of the right[clarification needed] side of the amygdala induces negative emotions, particularly fear and sadness. However, stimulation of the left[clarification needed] side of the amygdala, is capable of producing both positive and negative emotions. The left side has also been shown to play a role in the reward system in the brain which can also regulate behaviour (Lanteaume, Khalfa, Régis, Marquis, Chauvel & Bartolomei, 2007; Murray, Brosch, & Sander, 2014). The amygdala primarily has a role in memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions (Amunts, Kedo, Kindler, Pieperhoff, Mohlberg, Shah, Habel, Schneider & Zilles, 2005).

Anatomy[edit | edit source]

The amygdala, part of the limbic system, is located in the temporal lobe of the brain. The limbic system receives input from different sensory areas throughout the brain and then projects thoughts and feelings on to the hippocampus, thalamus and neocortex (Amaral, Price, Pitk ä nen, & Carmichael, 1992). The amygdala projects information to most parts of the brain, but only receives minimal information back. Because there is an imbalance in how much information the amygdala projects and receives, emotions have the ability to overpower other cognitive processes, which can result in irrational and impulsive behaviour[factual?].

For example, when a stimulus is perceived in a way that causes an individual to be angry, the amygdala projects a lot of messages of anger, while receiving very few messages of reason and rationality, so the individual feels angry about the stimulus until enough messages of rationality and reason are received through the amygdala to calm the individual down (Cardinal, Parkinson, Hall & Everitt, 2002).

Figure 2: The process of how information reaches the amygdala

Role in memories[edit | edit source]

The amygdala consolidates long-term memories and is heavily involved in the encoding process of acquiring positive and negative emotional memories[factual?]. There is very little evidence showing that the amygdala is activated in the process of retrieving a memory. However, once the memory has been retrieved, the amygdala is responsible for the emotional evaluation of that memory[factual?]. This is especially the case in autobiographical memories because of the emotional significance of these types of memories (Greenberg, Rice, Cooper, Cabeza, Rubin & LaBar, 2005).

Role in decision making[edit | edit source]

People with damage to their amygdala generally have an impaired ability to perceive rewards and punishments for their behaviour. This is because the amygdala is responsible for the emotional component of decision making (somatic marker hypothesis) and it is also responsible for impulsive behaviours as a result of emotional responses. People with bilateral amygdala damage have been shown to have deficiencies in their decision making ability[factual?]. In males, unilateral damage to the right hand side of the amygdala creates a deficit in decision-making and social behaviour, whereas damage to the left hand side of the amygdala creates more of a significant deficit in women (Gupta, Koscik., Bechara, & Tranel, 2011)

Role in emotion[edit | edit source]

Fear and aggression are the two emotions that are most significantly regulated by the amygdala, however there are also other [vague] emotions that the amygdala regulates (Lane & Nadel, 2002).

Fear[edit | edit source]

The amygdala is particularly important in the fear response of all animals. There has been extensive animal research on how the amygdala regulates fear. Research has shown that creating a lesion in the amygdala of an animal significantly hinders that animal's learned fear response (LaBar & LeDoux, 1996). Although the majority of research on the role of the amygdala in fear has been conducted on animals, there is evidence that fear deficits have been found on humans with damage to the amygdala (LaBar, Gatenby, Gore, LeDoux, & Phelps, 1998). Bilateral damage to the amygdala in humans compromises not only the the concept of fear, but also the recognition of fear in the facial expressions of others. The inability of those with a damaged amygdala to recognize fear in other people is due to their inability to feel fear themselves; therefore, they do not understand it when they see it in another person (Adolphs, Tranel & Damasio, 1995).

Aggression[edit | edit source]

In animals, stimulation of the amygdala promotes aggressive responses (Adamec, 1991). In humans, amygdala lesions have been associated with impulsive aggressive behaviours (van Elst, Woermann, Lemieux, Thompson, Trimble, 2000) Matthies, Rüsch, Weber, Lieb, Philipsen, Tuescher & van Elst (2012) conducted a study on the size of the amygdala in healthy humans and the role that size plays in aggressive behaviour and aggression in general. The results support the hypothesis that a physiological relationship exists between amygdala volume and lifetime aggression; the more aggressive group had 16 to 18 % smaller amygdala volumes. There was a strong correlation between life time history of aggression and amygdala volumes in healthy females. This was the case in the absence of any psychiatric disorder and any psychometric abnormality with respect to depression, anxiety or aggression.

Amygdala hijack[edit | edit source]

Amygdala hijack is a term that was originally coined by Daniel Goleman (1996) in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The amygdala hijack is a sudden and explosive emotional response to a stimulus that is out of proportion to the threat that the stimulus actually presents. This occurs during the fight, flight or freeze response to stimuli. During an amygdala hijack, the amygdala shuts down the neo-cortex, which is responsible for logical and rational thinking, conscious thought and sensory perception, therefore leaving people open to irrational thinking, impulsive actions and behaviour which is out of character. An amygdala hijack is often the result of a fight, flight or freeze reaction, whereby an individual is forced to make a sudden decision (Goleman, 1996). The neuroanatomical process of an amygdala hijack is complex.

Firstly, a stimulus passes through the amygdala, where it is perceived that the stimulus poses a threat to the individual. Once the stimulus has been perceived as threatening, the amygdala projects messages of fear to the lateral hypothalamus (increases heart rate and blood pressure), the paraventricular nucleus (responsible for the releasing of stress hormones), the parabrachial (which causes respiratory distress and panting), the central grey (causes respiratory distress and panting), hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis (controls reactions to stress), hippocampus (which keeps memories of similar situations) and finally the hypothalamus (which is responsible for the “fight, flight or freeze” reaction) while shutting out messages from the neocortex (known as “the thinking brain”). If these messages are sent together, it can create a sensory overload in these parts of the brain, which in turn may make the individual act in an impulsive and explosive way. (Freedman, 1999; Reeve, 2009; Taylor, Klein, Lewis, Gruenewald, Gurung, & Updegraff, 2000).

An amygdala hijack is usually characterised by three things: encountering a strong emotional stimulus; a sudden, disproportionate reaction to this stimulus; and feelings of regret following this reaction. (Nadler, 2009).

Positive hijack[edit | edit source]

Goleman noted in his book[factual?] that there can be positive amygdala hijacks whereby there is an overload of information coming in to the limbic system that it makes someone feel intense joy and act accordingly. An example of a positive hijack used by Goleman is "when a joke strikes someone as so uproarious that their laughter seems explosive".

Theoretical explanations[edit | edit source]

There is no psychological theory to date that specifically addresses the amygdala hijack. However, the James-Lange theory as well as an understanding of the “fight, flight or freeze” response can offer an explanation to the amygdala hijack. 

James-Lange theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 3: The James-Lange theory of emotion

The James-Lange theory of emotion was originally proposed by William James and Carl Lange, who separately came to the same conclusion. The theory explains that there is a sequential order to the emotions that humans experience when feeling emotions. Firstly, an event occurs which causes arousal, we make an interpretation of the event and this interpretation then leads to an emotion. (Lang, 1994)

In relation to amygdala hijack, an event causes a sensory overload in the arousal phase, creating an extreme interpretation of the event and in turn the emotion displayed is out of proportion to the event that actually happened.

Fight, Flight or Freeze[edit | edit source]

Fight or flight is a concept that was coined by Walter Cannon in 1927. Fight or flight is a physical reaction to a stimulus that occurs when an individual perceives a threat to their well-being. It is a rather self-explanatory concept, either the body prepares itself to fight against the threat or flee from it. (Brown & Fee, 2002) The concept of “freezing” was later added to this reaction and this is where the body neither fights nor flees from the threat, but rather does nothing and this is usually in response to a shocking stimulus (Elster, 1998).

The fight, flight or freeze reaction relates to the amygdala hijack because an amygdala hijack can be viewed as an irrational, fighting response that is out of proportion to the threat that a stimuli poses, but a fighting response nonetheless.

The amygdala in sport[edit | edit source]

The amygdala plays a bigger role than just being responsible for hijacking behaviour in sports. It can also help regulate an athlete's ability to make decisions, emotional memories about specific games as well as playing a role in emotions that athletes express and feel throughout the course of a game[factual?].

Importance[edit | edit source]

The physical size of the amygdala in humans and primates has a positive correlation to social play and desire to engage in competition (such as things like sport and exercise with others). This positive correlation means that, the larger size of the amygdala suggests a wider range of social complexities, such as the desire to be involved in activities such as social play (Lewis & Barton, 2006).

The amygdala is also important for emotional memories in sport and the decisions that an individual makes as a result of these emotional memories. For example, when people have negative or positive memories about playing at a particular venue, team or person, these memories can either hinder or elevate this individuals[grammar?] performance. The amygdala is particularly important when people have negative memories about a particular event because the amygdala senses danger and sends a message of fear to the rest of the brain which results in a range of physiological responses such as tightened muscles, heightened blood pressure and heart rate (Milton, Solodkin, Hluštík, & Small, 2007).

Amygdala hijack in sport[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Effect on performance[edit | edit source]

An amygdala hijack may affect not only the individual, who has experienced the hijack themselves, but also team mates. There are dangers associated with someone who has a momentary loss of control and these are: team mates may feel inclined to withdraw themselves from the situation; it can take the focus away from the sport itself and it can create a negative atmosphere for the other people on the team and the team as a whole can miss important opportunities to succeed (Athey, 2012).

However, an amygdala hijack, is not always a negative experience, which can be explained by the James-Lange theory. When a person is competing at a high level with passion and intensity and suddenly has an outburst of emotion which this can be considered as the ‘event’, then the arousal and interpretation of this event is to help their team-mate out by increasing their efforts so finally the emotion and actions that are taken is to approach the sport with same level of intensity and passion. (Vallerand & Blanchard, 2000)

Famous examples[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Zinedine Zidane's head-butt[edit | edit source]

Figure 4: Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 FIFA world cup final before he was disqualified from the match

In extra time of the 2006 FIFA world cup final, the game between France and Italy was drawn 1-1. It was in this extra time period that Zinedine Zidane, suddenly head-butted his Italian opponent, Marco Materazzi. Zidane was given a red card for this action and was forced to sit out the rest of the game. Italy would go on to win the game after Zidane had left the field. Following the game Zidane said that he and Materazzi had been slurring at each other throughout the game, which is why he struck Materazzi. He later admitted actions were out of proportion for what was being said and he offered an apology for his actions (Massadorp, 2016).

Mike Tyson's bite[edit | edit source]

On June 27, 1997, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield had a rematch after Evander Holyfield won their previous fight the year before. In the third round of the rematch, Tyson bit a piece of Holyfield's left ear off in frustration. The cause of this frustration was that Holyfield had won the first two rounds and was still winning on the score cards right up until Tyson bit him. Tyson was immediately disqualified, meaning that Holyfield had beaten him for the second time in a row. After the fight Tyson claimed that Holyfield had been head butting him throughout the fight without any punishment so, in response to the head-butting, he bit Holyfield (Katz, 1997; Dawes, 2013).

Rugby league brawl at Beacon Hill[edit | edit source]

In September, 2016, an under 17 rugby league grand final in Sydney, ended in a brawl between the Avalon Bulldogs and Beacon Hill Bears[factual?]. The Avalon Bulldogs won the game 21-20 by scoring in the final minutes of the game. At the end of the game a brawl erupted following accusations of players on being kicked and targeted by racial slurs. 11 players were identified as having a direct involvement in the brawl, which started when a Beacon Hill player was kicked, which resulted in in the brawl. This is an example of how an amygdala hijack in just one player on a team can have a chain effect on their team-mates. (Bailey, 2016; Geddes, 2016)

Prevention[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Mindfulness training[edit | edit source]

Mindfulness training is a commonly used method for treating people with anger issues and it can be used to prevent an amygdala hijack. Mindfulness involves intentionally paying attention to a stimulus or event and paying particular attention to what kind of reactions and responses that this stimulus can evoke in a non-judgmental way (Wright, Day & Howells, 2009). This is useful when it comes to an amygdala hijack because it makes the individual become one step removed from the stimulus that is causing the hijack and re-evaluate their decisions.

Breathing techniques[edit | edit source]

Another simple measure that can be taken to prevent an amygdala hijack is using breathing techniques. Controlled breathing is a good way to prevent an amygdala hijack because when the body is preparing for a "fight or flight" response, people's breathing becomes shorter and more rapid, so slowing down and taking deep breaths can prevent the onset of a fight or flight response and stop an amygdala hijack (O'Donohue, Fisher & Hayes, 2004). 

"6 second" rule[edit | edit source]

During an amygdala hijack it takes roughly 6 seconds for the hijack to occur after the stimulus is originally interpreted as threatening. The "6 second rule" involves listing six things that are separate from the stimulus causing the hijack. Once these six things have been listed, the amygdala has generally stopped dominating the thoughts in the brain and the neocortex is back to normal functioning. (Freedman, 1999)

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In conclusion, the amygdala is a small part of the brain that is responsible for the regulation of emotions (especially fear and aggression), memories and decisions. The amygdala hijack occurs when the amygdala "hijacks" the rest of the brain and makes a person act in a way that is out of proportion to the threat that a stimulus actually presents. This hijacking experience is usually negative and responses are usually aggressive and angry, but there are also positive hijacks. A positive hijack occurs when a person is overcome by positive emotions. There is yet to be a psychological theory that specifically addresses the amygdala hijack but the James-Lange theory however can be used to offer an explanation of the amygdala hijack and the Fight, Flight or Freeze theory also offers an explanation for the amygdala hijack.

The amygdala plays an important role in sports, especially in emotional memories of sporting events and these emotional memories can have an effect on people's performance and decision making in sport. The amygdala hijack in sports can have an affect on an individuals as well as an individual's team mates after someone experiences an amygdala hijack. There are many famous examples of amygdala hijacks in sports and, in these examples, it is shown how experiencing an amygdala hijack can have an effect on the outcome of a game.

There are a range of simple measures that can be taken to prevent an amygdala hijack. The most effective of these are mindfulness training, the use of breathing techniques and controlled breathing, and the "6 second rule".

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 What are the three things that the amygdala has a major role in?

Memory, decision making and emotion
Decision making, motor skills and speech
Memory, emotion and reasoning
Perception, recognition and problem solving

2 An amygdala hijack is characterised by what?.

Strictly a negative overreaction to a stimulus and then actively trying to apologize and make up for this overreaction
A sudden disproportionate reaction to a stimulus without any feelings of regret following this reaction
A sudden disproportionate reaction to a stimulus and feelings of regret following this reaction
None of the above

3 A basic description of the James-Lange theory is

Stimulus --> emotion --> reaction
Stimulus --> reaction and emotion at same time
Emotion --> stimulus --> reaction
Stimulus --> reaction --> emotion

4 Who is responsible for coining the term "amygdala hijack"?

Zinedine Zidane
Joseph E. LeDoux
Sigmund Freud
Daniel Goleman

5 In which system in the brain does the amygdala belong?

Prefrontal cortex
Basal ganglia
Limbic system

6 What kind of memories does the amygdala have a role in?

Long term memories
Emotional memories
Short term memories
Sensory memories

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Adamec, R. E. (1991). Partial kindling of the ventral hippocampus: Identification of changes in limbic physiology which accompany changes in feline aggression and defense. Physiology & behavior, 49(3), 443-453. Doi: 10.1016/0031-9384(91)90263-N

Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. R. (1995). Fear and the human amygdala. The Journal of neuroscience, 15(9), 5879-5891.

Amaral, D, Price, J, Pitk ä nen, A & Carmichael, S. (1992). Anatomical organization of the primate amygdaloid complex.  In: Aggleton JP, editor. The amygdala: Neurobiological aspects  of emotion, memory and mental dysfunction. New York:  Wiley-Liss. 1 – 66.

Amunts, K, Kedo, O, Kindler, M, Pieperhoff, P, Mohlberg, H, Shah, N, Habel U, Schneider, F & Zilles, K (2005). "Cytoarchitectonic mapping of the human amygdala, hippocampal region and entorhinal cortex: intersubject variability and probability maps". Anat Embryol (Berl). 210 (5–6): 343–52. doi:10.1007/s00429-005-0025-5. 

Bailey, Z. (2016, September 5). Ten players facing lengthy bans after ‘disgusting’ junior rugby league brawl at Brookvale Oval. Fox Sports. Retrieved from:

Blandler, R. (1988). Brain mechanisms of aggression as revealed by electrical and chemical stimulation: Suggests of a central role for midbrain periaqueductal grey reigon. In A. N. Epstein & J. M. Sprague (Eds.), Progress in psychobiology and physiological psychology. (Vol. 13, pp. 67-154). San Diego, CA: Academic Press Brown, T. M., & Fee, E. (2002). Walter Bradford Cannon: Pioneer physiologist of human emotions. American Journal of Public Health, 92(10), 1594-1595. Doi: 10.2105/AJPH.92.10.1594

Burton, L. J., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2009). Psychology: Australian and New Zealand. John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.

Cardinal, R., Parkinson, J., Hall, J. & Everitt, B. (2002). Emotion and motivation: The role of the amygdala, ventral striatum, and prefrontal cortex. "Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews", 226, 321-352. Doi: 10.1016/S0149-7634(02)00007-6

Davis, M. (1992). The role of the amygdala in fear and anxiety. Annual review of neuroscience, 15(1), 353-375. Doi: 10.1146/

Elster, J. (1998). 3. A plea for mechanisms. Social mechanisms: An analytical approach to social theory, 45.

Freedman, J. (1999). Hijacking of the Amygdala. EQ Today.

Geddes, J. (2016, September 6. Matty Johns reacts to junior rugby league grand final brawl between Avalon and Beacon Hill. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved from:

Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence. Why It Can Matter More than IQ. Learning, 24(6), 13-14.

Greenberg, D. L., Rice, H. J., Cooper, J. J., Cabeza, R., Rubin, D. C., & LaBar, K. S. (2005). Co-activation of the amygdala, hippocampus and inferior frontal gyrus during autobiographical memory retrieval. Neuropsychologia, 43(5), 659-674. Doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2004.09.002

Gupta, R., Koscik, T. R., Bechara, A., & Tranel, D. (2011). The amygdala and decision-making. Neuropsychologia, 49(4), 760-766. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.09.029.

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Katz, M. (1997, June 27). Mike Tyson chews off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear during 1997 Las Vegas bout. New York Daily News. Retrieved from:

LaBar, K. S., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., LeDoux, J. E., & Phelps, E. A. (1998). Human amygdala activation during conditioned fear acquisition and extinction: a mixed-trial fMRI study. Neuron, 20(5), 937-945. Doi: 10.1016/S0896-6273(00)80475-4

Lane, R. D., & Nadel, L. (2002). Cognitive neuroscience of emotion. Oxford University Press, USA.

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Lanteaume, L., Khalfa, S., Régis, J., Marquis, P., Chauvel, P., & Bartolomei, F. (2007). Emotion induction after direct intracerebral stimulations of human amygdala. Cerebral Cortex, 17(6), 1307-1313. Doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhl041

Lewis, K. P., & Barton, R. A. (2006). Amygdala size and hypothalamus size predict social play frequency in nonhuman primates: a comparative analysis using independent contrasts. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120(1), 31. Doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.120.1.31

Massdorp, J. (2016, July 20) Zinedine Zidane headbutt 10 years on: the hit on Marco Materazzi that shook up the 2006 World Cup. ABC News. Retrieved from:

Matthies, S., Rüsch, N., Weber, M., Lieb, K., Philipsen, A., Tuescher, O., ... & van Elst, L. T. (2012). Small amygdala–high aggression? The role of the amygdala in modulating aggression in healthy subjects. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, 13(1), 75-81. Doi: 10.3109/15622975.2010.541282

Milton, J., Solodkin, A., Hluštík, P., & Small, S. L. (2007). The mind of expert motor performance is cool and focused. Neuroimage, 35(2), 804-813. Doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.01.003

Murray, R. J., Brosch, T., & Sander, D. (2014). The functional profile of the human amygdala in affective processing: insights from intracranial recordings. Cortex, 60, 10-33. Doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2014.06.010

Nadler, R. (2009). What was I thinking? Handling the hijack. Business Management.

O'Donohue, W. T., Fisher, J. E., & Hayes, S. C. (Eds.). (2004). Cognitive behavior therapy: Applying empirically supported techniques in your practice. John Wiley & Sons.

Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological review, 107(3), 411. Doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.107.3.411

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Wright, S., Day, A., & Howells, K. (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(5), 396-401. Doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2009.06.008

External Links[edit | edit source]

Brain Snaps in Sport – The Amygdala Hijack

What is an amygdala hijack?

Video: Amygdala hijack & Emotional Intelligence