Emotional Intelligence- Amygdala Hijack, understanding the difference between emotions and feelings

Spread the love

Remember the 1996 cricket world cup when India played and beat Pakistan in the quarter final? I have fond memories of one incident when Pakistan was cruising along with openers Aamir Sohail and Saeed Anwar going great guns scoring 84 runs in just first ten overs. But then madness struck Aamir when he unnecessarily gestured bowler Venkatesh Prasad as if to throw him out of the ground after hitting him for 2 consecutive boundaries. There was no necessity of these antics, the result was- very next ball Venkatesh clean bowls Aamir and eventually Pakistan lose the all-important quarter final and bowed out of the competition.

Another incident in sports- this time it was tennis when the player lost it all in the mind when Serena Williams screamed obscenities to the line judge in her 2009 U.S. Open tennis match final with Kim Clijsters. She was serving at 5-6, 15-30 in the second set, and faulted on her first serve. She had already lost the first set. On the second serve, a line judge called a foot fault, making it a double fault, which made the score 15-40 and just about gave Kim Clijsters the victory with one more point. Williams “lost it” by yelling, cursing, and threatening the line judge. The judge then assessed a point penalty for a code violation of unsportsmanlike conduct, which meant Williams not only lost her cool but also the match.

Then there was the famous (or infamous) head butt by ZINEDINE ZIDANE in the 2006 Soccer world cup final. It so happened that Italy’s Marco Materazzi sledged Zinedine and passed some dirty comments on his wife. That resulted in Zinedine getting so angry at Marco that he banged his head on Marco’s shoulder and hence was asked to leave the game by the referee as disciplinary action. France had to play with only 10 players and eventually lost the world cup.

Then there was our own Sunil Gavaskar whose behavior almost cost India the Test match against Australia in 1981. In the second innings of the game, Sunil was given out LBW to Denis Lillie when clearly the ball had hit the bat first before hitting his pads. Sunil who was also the captain of the Indian cricket side, out of anger ordered his partner Chetan Chouhan to leave the ground along with him before more sense prevailed and the team manager calmed Sunil and the game went on. Thankfully, ultimately India won the match.

One more tragic incident which happened in one of the Mumbai local trains, about 15-20 years back, when there was some smoke emanating out in the ladies’ compartment of the train. While the train was moving quite fast at around 60kph, most women thought (assumed) that the whole train had caught fire and out of sheer panic, all of them jumped out of the running training to save their lives, only to be crushed under the train running past in the opposite direction at around the same speed. Had at least some of those ladies taken a pause, thought for a second, many lives could have been saved. Why did they act so impulsively?

What is common in all the above incidents? All the concerned players and women (in train incident) allowed their emotions (anger/ fear) to get the better of them and resulted in their or their team’s downfall. (except for the example of Sunil Gavaskar, he luckily escaped, though he was the victim of the following phenomenon). In other words, they were emotionally or amygdala hijacked a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his book emotional intelligence.

To understand this concept, we need to first get into how our brain works and what triggers these irrational behaviors. In 1990 neuroscientist Paul D. Maclean in his book, ‘The Triune Brain in Evolution’ describes the brain in three major parts- The primitive brain, the emotional brain (limbic system), and the rational brain (neo-cortex). The following figure shows the structure of the human brain.

The three major parts of the human brain

The primitive brain: as the name suggests it was the first one to develop and is responsible for the basic survival functions such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and spatial orientation. It is also known as the reptilian brain because it is similar in architecture to the brainstem in reptiles.

We take information from the surrounding world through our five senses- eye (vision), ear(hear), tongue (taste), Skin(touch) & nose (smell). These sensations enter the brain at this point, which is near the beginning of the spinal cord and is the seat of habits. We form all our habits through imitation, avoidance, or repetition and this brain is responsible for it.

The Limbic system: is also known as the emotional brain because neuroscientists have shown that emotions are not just the matter of the heart, they are also a result of brain biochemistry and thus they named the limbic system the emotional brain. The limbic system/emotional brain stores every emotional experience we have from the first moments of life, long before we acquire the verbal and higher thinking abilities to put them into words. It is like a big warehouse of feelings and impressions which we use in the required context. The limbic system is located at the centre of the brain.

Our body contains millions of cells and messages are transmitted to the brain through these cells. All the sensations enter the limbic system to create bodily sensations that are in response to some external trigger or information and bring about some awareness of what is happening to push us to take some action. (whether the action is correct or wrong, we will discuss in the following paras.) The limbic system contains parts of the brain called the thalamus and amygdala. (apart from that it also has hypothalamus, hippocampus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus but for the sake of simplicity and concerned with emotional hijacking, we will restrict our discussions only to these two parts, although all other parts mentioned above, each have a role to perform).

The main function of the limbic system is to protect our body from any external threats. It helps us to know what to approach and what to avoid. However, since it also stores our memories and experiences right from the beginning of life, it may also signal dangers to us when there are none. This explains why people get nightmares, firm deep-rooted beliefs, and stress/panic attacks.

The neo-cortex or the cerebrum: This is also called the large/rational brain and is the centre for reasoning, analysis, making decisions, questioning, solving problems, generating new ideas, and rational thinking. It is also responsible for symbolic communication and long-term planning. There are billions of nerve connections between the limbic system and the neo-cortex allowing for a free two-way communication and information exchange between the two.

Functioning of the brain related to emotions:

  1. Under normal conditions (no real/perceived threat to the body): As discussed above we gather information from the surrounding world from the five sensory organs, e.g. from say eyes or ears to form electric signals which pass from cell to cell and enter the brain near the beginning of the spinal cord into the primitive brain and these signals/sensations are then transferred to the limbic system (first thalamus then to the amygdala). Signals passing through the limbic system create an emotional reaction to events/threats or information received from either of the five senses. These signals then pass ahead to neo-cortex (on the front side just behind our forehead) where rational thinking is done. The location of the limbic system is kept before the rational thinking brain so that it can act very fast and no time is wasted in thinking in times of attacks or threats to the body.
  2. In response to an external trigger:  The antennae are up in the amygdala to constantly scan the environment for anything that may hurt us or we should fear. Now, just imagine you are walking through a jungle and all of a sudden, a ferocious tiger comes in front of you. What will be your response? Obviously, it will be of fear and this triggers the amygdala (inside the limbic system) as a threat to our body and it acts very fast instructing us to flee. In some other event say you get involved in road rage with no fault of yours and the other person starts showering blows onto you, again amygdala sees this as a threat to your body and prompts you to act very fast and in our defense, we also reply with some blows to that person. This response from our end is called a fight.  
How emotions are experienced and why the two way communication between the emotional and rational brains is very important for emotional intelligence.

This survival mechanism lets us react to things before the rational brain has time to mull over the situation. This term, fight/flight was first coined by Dr. Walter Cannon, a physiologist way back in 1920, as a brain reaction for any external threat. Strong fear or immense anger produces a signal that the body needed to defend itself or run away.

While the good part of the amygdala is it warns us from external threats, the downside of this is, it has the natural tendency to act very fast against a trigger to engage in risky, irrational, and even dangerous behaviour in everyday situations. This tendency of the amygdala when triggered with any strong emotion like fear and anger may result into emotional outbursts and is called as emotional or amygdala hijacking. This explains the improper behaviour of the athletes in all the five incidences explained at the beginning of this blog.

The working of the two important parts of the brain, the amygdala, and neo-cortex can be better understood if we look them as a two-way transceiver, a walkie-talkie, wherein each part can transmit as well as receive signals. In the same way, billions of neurons line the path between the emotional (limbic system) and the rational (neo-cortex) parts of the brain. When signals are flowing smoothly between these two parts (trans/receive), you are practicing emotional intelligence. The more this two-way walkie-talkie (and not the unilateral impulsive way of amygdala) is used, the stronger is the connection between the emotional and rational parts of the brain. The more habitual you get in using this two-way communication, the more developed will be your emotional intelligence. In the above example of the train incident, this link between the emotional and the rational parts of the brain was totally missing and once the amygdala was triggered, irrational and dangerous (actually, fatal in this case) reaction resulted in the loss of so many lives.  

Self-awareness is the cornerstone for us to think about our feelings and only then we know how to manage our emotions. The stronger the emotional self-awareness, the stronger will be this network connectivity between these two parts of the brain.

If there are network issues (i.e. we are not connected with our feelings), the communications between these two parts will be hampered. Some people either ignore their feelings while others are overwhelmed by them. The key to personal and professional success is to maintain the right balance between feelings and rational thinking.

Understanding the difference between, emotions, feelings and moods

Emotions and feelings are many times used alternately, however, they are totally different brain processes and distinct from one another. We should know the difference between the two because the way we behave in this world is the result of our emotions and feelings. Knowing the difference gives us a better understanding of not only ourselves but also the people around us. However, unless we work on our emotional knowledge, most emotional reactions will be unconscious of us. Nothing can be controlled if you are not even aware that those things are happening.

Before we get into distinguishing between emotions and feelings, we need to understand the duality of the mind. We have only one mind however, it possesses two distinctive characteristics- the conscious and the sub-conscious.

Let’s first understand the difference between these two. The conscious mind is the reasoning mind that chooses and we make all our decisions through the conscious mind. It is that phase of mind wherein we are aware of all our actions which are externally visible to others. E.g. we choose our life partner, books, home, etc with conscious mind. It is the conscious mind that is at work for the quality of thoughts we sow into our sub-conscious mind.

On the other hand, there are some functions that happen in the background such as the beating of heart, breathing, the process of digestion, blood circulation, etc. which we don’t even realize that they are happening. All such systems, which take place automatically are carried out by our subconscious mind through the process which is independent of the conscious mind. The subconscious mind doesn’t understand what is right or wrong, nor does it argue with you for your choices. It just follows the old school of thought “as you sow so shall you reap”.


  1. Emotions are responses or reactions/ triggers to an external event.
  2. Emotions are connected to our biological systems and are designed to alert us of immediate danger or to draw us to something pleasurable.
  3. Emotions are physical and precede feelings, and are instinctual. Emotions can be measured in terms of blood pressure, pulse rate, heart rate, etc. (as you get angry or fearful all these will increase). Emotions can result in physiological changes like perspiration, sweaty palms, tightness in the stomach, headache, etc. 
  4. Emotions are intense but temporary/short-lived and egoic in nature.
  5. They are stressful for our body and can result in many diseases like blood pressure, cholesterol, heart trouble, diabetes, etc. if left unmanaged over a long period of time.
  6. Emotions are clear, well defined, and experienced by all the people.
  7. Most emotions give rise to some immediate action from the person experiencing it which may have far-reaching consequences.


  1. While emotions are at an unconscious level, feelings are linked subconsciously to an emotion. As we react in emotion, feelings follow them. Feelings are subjective and influenced by personal experience, beliefs, and memories, and hence vary from person to person and from situation to situation.
  2. Feelings cannot be measured as they are at the subconscious level. They cannot be demonstrated or proven why one feels in a particular way.
  3. Feelings are low key, stable, sustainable, and subtle. Emotions prompt feelings, which may persist and grow over a lifetime.  
  4. Feelings are generated in the heart and one can use the internal signals that can help us in what is called the “sixth sense”. Feelings can be used as a tool for decision making and choices.
  5. Feelings alert us for an anticipated danger, (Intuition/gut feeling) so that we can prepare for it.
  6. Feelings are more matured, more thoughtful.

For better understanding between the two, following table will clarify with         examples:

AngerBitterness, Resentment,
ShameDistress, worthlessness, regret, dishonor
Emotions and their equivalent feelings

Moods: A mood is your state of mind at any particular time. Your moods show your thinking and feeling. The mood can be collective of the group or individual of the person as well. (E.g. the mood of the people of the country). There is a difference between emotions and moods. While the former is a result of some reason/event to occur, the latter is more dependent on factors such as environment, surroundings, the attitude of people, etc. Moods are feelings that may last for a much longer duration and occurs for unknown reasons.

Conclusions: We have seen how emotions if not managed, can pose real problems in our personal as well as professional life and can really impede our progress in both. The key to avoiding emotional hijacks is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. There are various ways in which you can avoid emotional hijacks.

Feelings are our internal compass guiding us with our “sixth sense”. On the other hand, emotions need to be managed. (that’s the reason perhaps discoverers termed it as emotional intelligence and not feelings intelligence.) The early we understand the difference between the two, the faster we can be on the path on emotional intelligence.

16 thoughts on “Emotional Intelligence- Amygdala Hijack, understanding the difference between emotions and feelings”

  1. Lots of insights.
    Appreciate your communication in simple language.

    Happy receive your blog links through whatsup

    1. Thanks a lot Bharat for reading it patiently. Do keep reading my blogs and feedback is welcome.

  2. Great words, amazing flow of content and super important topic .
    The Emotional intelligence and not feelings intelligence part is an absolute marvel and the crux of your post.
    Your blogs make me understand many aspects of EI which I thought I knew but dint.
    Thank you and keep sharing your insights/knowledge.
    . Cheers,

  3. I admire the way you pen down your thoughts on emotional intelligence that function as the amplifier for Humans. In the above article you have rightly put across the incidences occurred in sports and in Train incident gives larger insights of emotions overflowing and crossing to extreme limits of causing ill effects.

  4. Its nicely articulated in a simple language and precisely explained about EI and its importance. Can you elaborate how to balance Emotions and Rational thinking. Because in my case I feel its more of emotions rather than of Rational thinking..

    Pls let me know.

    1. Thanks a lot, Venkatesh for reading my blogs so regularly. We discussed your queries in detail on WA. Do keep reading my blogs and motivating me.

  5. Ty for such a beautiful blog. Shall hv my daughter go through it too.. Keep writing & motivating!!! All the best for your future efforts & a continous progress.

    1. Thanks a ton, Geetanjali for patiently reading my blog. Do keep reading my future ones and motivating me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social Network Widget by Acurax Small Business Website Designers