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

2 Replies to “Cultural Relevance and the Amygdala Hijack”

  • Hello, my name is Alaina Nebel. As I began reading this article I found that I related well to the content and it sparked my interest through the current discussions that appear to be surrounding our world today. I greatly appreciate the relatable content that has helped me reflect on my own “amygdala hijack” experiences, whether it be in my school as I converse with colleagues or students, as well as in my own personal life. It is through a recent reading from Shaping School Culture by the authors Deal and Peterson that I learned the importance of cultural relevancy and recognizing how we can protect our students and learning community, as it was also mentioned in this article. In Shaping School Culture, there are a vast amount of strategies and ideas as to how we can verbally discuss topics with those in our school and the students that make up the community. There are also different ways a school can be formed to protect our students’ cultural backgrounds and to not let them be left behind at the door when they walk into their classrooms(Deal and Peterson 2002). To avoid setting off our students amygdala with dangers that threaten their own cultural norms and identity, it is important as teachers to recognize how we can protect our students from these threats. This is a promise that I hope to continue practicing as I learn and grow with my students, while also targeting cultural relevance in my instruction each day when they walk in.

  • Hi, my name is Hayley Graves. When seeing the title of this article, I knew this was something that I had to read. I appreciate the descriptions of the Reticular Activating System and the Amygdala. It has been a while since I have studied the structures in the brain, and I have never studied the structures of the brain related to how they can be impacted in the classroom. I had never thought about the amygdala being activated because of an event in the classroom, so I appreciate the connection that this article made for me. The solutions for how to prevent this from happening related to many of the topics we have been discussing in my master’s classes. One of the topics that we have been focusing on recently is SEL in the classroom and this connected when discussing developing positive relationships in the classroom to prevent the amygdala from looking for threats. We have also discussed culturally relevant teaching which has been a big impact on my teaching, but I had never connected it to microaggressions that trigger a response in the amygdala. A promise that I would like to make to my students is to incorporate more cultural relevance into the classroom and continue working on my positive relationships with students.

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