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Will Smith had his amygdala hijacked and it triggered his fight-or-flight response

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Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

The only difference between Will Smith and the rest of us is that our public meltdowns won’t be watched by tens of millions of people all over the world, repeated for eternity or until Google implodes. The consequences though can be just as humiliating and catastrophic.

There’s a small cluster of neurons the size of an almond in the back of each of our heads. It’s called the amygdala from the Greek word for almond. We never really think about it — until it’s too late. The amygdala controls the body’s fight-or-flight response and is activated by perceived threats. When those threats are observed, the body takes over from the rational mind and does whatever is necessary to get us out of the danger zone.

There’s actually a name for exactly that response: amygdala hijack, which was coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. When the amygdala gets triggered, cue irrational and destructive behaviour with often catastrophic consequences.

Will Smith got triggered at this year’s Oscars, slapped presenter Chris Rock and is now looking at the wreckage of what had been up until then a stellar career. Within a week, he’d resigned his membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences under whose auspices the awards are presented, but was still facing a full disciplinary hearing nonetheless.

In the process, his behaviour inspired tons of opinions from anyone anywhere with a smartphone and access to social media. Most of them were either weighing in on his defence or condemning him. As the days passed, the opinion pieces developed into speculation about what could have set him off.

But what most of these missed was the fact all of us are at risk of exploding, not just Hollywood megastars having their spouses mocked in public in front of them.

We all have the amygdala and every day it can be hijacked with catastrophic consequences for us as individuals — blowing up at work, leading to road rage, overcome by service rage in a supermarket or restaurant, emoting on social media exposing all our prejudices in one toxic tweet. It happens at home too, arguments between spouses that go nuclear in the flash of an eye, with the same mutually assured destruction to both parties.

The only difference between Will Smith and the rest of us is that our public meltdowns won’t be watched by tens of millions of people all over the world, repeated for eternity or until Google implodes. The consequences though can be just as humiliating and catastrophic.

The way in which so many people responded to the actual slap; condemning or defending Smith or Rock or empathising with Jada Pinkett Smith — depending on the triggers we felt and projecting them onto ourselves: patriarchy, racism, sexism, identity politics, class, creed, bullying, the entire spectrum and the associated pain and hurt that all that has caused and continues to cause.

The amygdala response is more extreme in people who are under immense stress, who are scared and fearful. Smith, we are hearing has been under extreme stress, but the truth is that thanks to the pressures of Covid-19; the uncertainty, the lockdown, work pressure, family stress, we are all emotional timebombs on the cusp of detonating an amygdala hijack.

Smith has asked for patience and space as he is a “work in progress”. We are all works in progress, but most of us don’t get the luxury of patience or space. It’s even worse now after the pandemic; the demands upon us are intolerable, we are always on, always at the beck and call of everyone in our lives all the time. We have to heal, we have to grow, on the move as we run the race of life.

But there are ways to avoid having our amygdalas hijacked, five of them in fact. The pandemic has forced a far greater awareness of some of the tools business schools have been using for years, like emotional intelligence and mindfulness to build resilience for executives and managers and keep calm in the face of unimaginable pressure. The five key acts draw on these: Name It; The six-second rule; Breathe; Mindfulness; and Time Out.

Putting a name to what is happening to you is like sharing a problem, the moment it has a name, it is no longer as overwhelming. It can be addressed and solved. The six-second rule is exactly what it is; do nothing, freeze for six seconds to override the fight-or-flight impulse. Concentrating on your breathing is guaranteed to slow your pulse and let the red mist slowly subside before your eyes. Mindfulness means observing your surroundings, stepping back into the broader moment of the present, away from the trigger. Finally, if all else fails, remove yourself. Literally. Leave the room.

The secret to civilisation is the small space between stimulus and response. I vividly remember the story of a young man whose father abused his mother. At school he was told “boys, don’t be triggered, don’t do violence, you’ll regret it for the rest of your lives. Don’t get involved with gangs.” He got home one day, heard his mom being beaten to a pulp by his father and grabbed a gun as he ran for the door. And, just as he was about to open that door and pull the trigger, that small teacher’s voice in his head came to him. He put down the gun.

He changed his mind and he changed his life and those around him for the better. He saved his life. We can use this toolbox for any kind of trigger: being stuck in traffic and about to miss your flight; a flare-up with your spouse or kids; a confrontational setting at work — any situation where rationally you know that to fly off the handle will cause you endless future pain to deal with, just because you couldn’t manage the trigger moment.

Think of other role models in difficult situations. Nelson Mandela is a fantastic example. He endured 27 years in jail and then countless micro — and major — aggressions shepherding South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy. He could have slapped FW de Klerk at Codesa, instead he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with him; winning by setting an example in grace and nobility for generations to come.

We might not all be able to channel Madiba, but if we can’t, we can remember Will Smith and the price he has paid, and will continue to pay, for his inability to control his emotions in that moment when his amygdala was hijacked. DM

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  • Maybe it’s just perception, but it seems as if the threshold of triggering is much much lower than it used to be, and the number of triggers has increased exponentially…

  • In byegone days Will would have slapped his gloves across Chris Rock’s face and challenged him to a duel for the insult.

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