This is an except from what the author, neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, wrote:
So, when Will Smith perceived Chris Rock’s joke as a threat to his wife’s emotional well-being, it is not a surprise that he did what he did. His amygdala temporarily hijacked his cognitive system, and for whatever reason, his prefrontal cortex was not able to override his automatic behavioral response in time.
Update (Fri. April 1): Here’s an 11 minute video about this:
The now famous Academy Award slap is being discussed on TV and online but nobody is considering the possibility that Will Smith was not in control of his emotions and of his actual behavior when by all appearances he purposefully walked from his seat onto the stage and slapped Chris Rock. Except for the one article everyone discussing this is assuming Smith was acting rationally, that he was in total control of his emotions.
I thought immediately that because what he did was so self-defeating that he was not processing the consequences of his action as he did this but was on a sort of automatic pilot as a result of having what medically is called an Amygdala Hijack. Consider these articles:
This is from Wikipedia:
An amygdala hijack is an emotional response that is immediate, overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat. The term was coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
This article explains how under some stressful situations the fight or flight response is triggered and how under some circumstances the “thinking part” of the brain is “turned” off and the “reactionary” part of the brain takes over resulting in impulsive behavior.
Consider the examples from the Psych Central article:
- Your boss criticizes you in front of your coworkers. You’re so angry that you yell back and quit your job.
- A car swerves in your lane nearly causing an accident. You go into road rage and throw your smoothie in their window.
- You get a phone call that your loved one is in the emergency room, but you’re so distressed that you don’t hear the details.
- You win the lottery, and your excitement makes you scream and cause a scene in the convenience store.
- You lose a tennis match, and in your anger, you throw your racket across the court.
- You’ve been trying for 5 minutes to open a can, and you’re so angry and frustrated you slam it on the counter.
Could you add the following?
- Someone hurts your wife’s feelings on national television and you become so enraged you commit the crime of assault and battery without thinking of the consequences.
While Smith did not react to a physical threat, and thus the explanation of his behavior as an amygdala hijack may not fit exactly, it may be that seeing his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, being so distressed triggered rage rather than fear. If this is what happened, he either did not even think of the negative fallout from what he was doing as he was doing it, or may have been in a kind of detached mental state knowing at some level, perhaps observing himself from outside that he should stop himself but was unable to do so.
What do you think?
Since posting this I’ve found more articles on the same subject:
What Smith experienced wasn't just a poor lapse in judgment. It was an example of what psychologists refer to as an emotional hijack, or an amygdala hijack.
When it comes to higher level executive functions, such as the capacity to think through a decision or exercise self-control, we typically engage the frontal lobe(s), the largest part of the brain. But when we feel some type of emotional threat, the amygdala, an almond shaped structure found deep in the brain, hijacks the process. This often results in a fight, flight, or freeze response.
If Smith interpreted Rock's joke as an attack on his wife, that could then lead Smith to react emotionally--in this case, to take an action he would later regret.