Human emotions are aroused in the limbic system in the
brain, especially in a structure called the amygdala. Other parts
of the brain, primarily the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, can
moderate this arousal. If these executive functions of the brain
do not perform this function, the emotional part of the brain can
spin out of control. The result is unmanageable rage or panic. This
emotional tailspin and resulting mindlessness is emotional highjacking.
This loss of thought can place the actor in grave danger. If we
cannot think, we cannot act effectively.
The executive parts of the brain begin to develop during preschool.
For example, children may gradually learn to control their frustration
instead of having temper tantrums. By the time they are 10 years
old, children should have a sufficiently healthy executive brain
function to intervene during emotional arousal. Of course, this
capacity is something that all of us, no matter the age, struggle
How is the ability to prevent emotional highjacking learned? An
adequate answer to that important question is beyond the scope of
this website. Young children must experience the protection and
support of loved ones who help them with kindness and patience to
think during emotional moments. As they grow older they can be challenged
to think about their thinking and feeling. The prefrontal cortex
and hippocampus have to be used outside of emotional circumstances
to grow strong enough to be effective when a person is faced with
danger, risk, and sacrifice.
Ask children if they know what the word "highjacking"
means. Look it up in the dictionary. Then introduce and explain
the phrase emotional highjacking. Talk about how difficult
it is to think when we have strong feelings. Ask children if they
can think of examples of this difficulty. Most importantly, ask
them to explain why this can be a problem. What can happen when
you feel strong emotions and stop thinking? Talk with them about
reckless and foolish behavior.
Apply this learning to their understanding of heroic behavior.
Are heroes "smart with their heart?"
Do you have a question, comment, or suggestion
for this lesson? Go to the author contact