Cultural Relevance and the Amygdala Hijack

Cultural Relevance and the Amygdala Hijack

Picture this: you are in a stressful situation – a really heated moment – and out of your mouth slips a sentence or two that you instantly regret. We’ve all experienced times like this, when our mouth was faster than the filter in our brains, and we ended up saying or doing something that we wouldn’t have under normal circumstances. This regrettable experience is often called “amygdala hijack” a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman to describe an emotional trigger that puts the brain in fight or flight mode and “hijacks” the rational brain. This is a common occurrence that has ended careers, friendships, and, far too often, the positive relationships between students and teachers. Even worse, the amygdala hijack is far more common in an adolescent brain than an adult brain. So, what can we as educators do to help this?

How the Brain Works

Cultural relevance plays a large role in the health and development of the brains of the students we teach. The brain is a complex organ consisting of many different parts which work in unison to guide our actions (behaviors) and thoughts (cognition). The brain is wrapped in mystery; scientists of various backgrounds and fields of study have devoted their careers to studying its structures and functions. The same can be said about culture. Culturally relevant teaching, or the encouragement of students to relate course content to his or her cultural context, is a relatively new topic in the field of education. How does cultural relevance affect the brain? Let’s begin by looking at a few structures of the brain and how they are affected by culturally responsive teaching: 

  • Reticular activating system (RAS) – Think of the RAS as a security camera for the brain. The RAS is a primitive brain structure found in most animals. It is constantly scanning one’s environment for changes; specifically threats (a predator, the smell of smoke, an authoritarian teacher) and rewards (a mate, food, a brain break). Threats are sent to the amygdala. 
  • Amygdala – If the RAS is the security camera, then the amygdala can be thought of as an alarm: it is the threat response system of the brain. This small structure of the brain is involved in the experience of emotions. When a threat is detected by the RAS, the amygdala takes over to fight, flight, freeze, or appease. 


Using Cultural Relevance to Avoid Amygdala Hijack

Understand what your students might culturally recognize as threats and protect them from those threats. Consider protecting your students from microaggressions – the brief and common indignities faced by culturally marginalized groups. These microaggressions can trigger a student’s amygdala and set off a threat response that can inhibit learning. Marginalized students don’t need to just be free from threats, they should feel as though they belong in your learning environment. 

Building positive relationships with our students can prevent the amygdala from looking for threats. If you build positive relationships with your students, they won’t need to look for threats and instead will focus on higher order thought processes and learning. 

We know that the brain is always scanning for threats and rewards, so use that to your advantage! Using call and response with your students can be an effective strategy to use with students who come from a culture of oral tradition. Grab their attention to signal when a learning objective is important, and you will teach them how to take responsibility for their learning. 


Written by Vincent Leggio