The Effects of Amygdala Hijacking in Online Learning

Dahl, L. (2008). Brain [Photograph]. Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dahl, L. (2008). Brain [Photograph]. Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The first time I heard the term “Amygdala Hijacking” it was in reference to an episode my son had in middle school. He had punched another student in the face during the Pledge of Allegiance one morning, and had been sent to the Principal’s office where there was talk of suspension. I learned that the boy my son had punched had been tormenting my son; calling him names and poking him with a pencil… belittling him in front of his peers on a regular basis. That morning, he pushed my son to his limit, and my son reacted, the victim of “Amygdala Hijacking.”

The amygdala is a part of the brain and limbic system. (Steiner, 2015). Comprised of two almond shaped sections of the mid-brain, the amygdala is responsible for the fight or flight response we all experience when pushed too far, frightened, stimulated to the point where we cannot think rationally. (Stankus, 2009)

In this video, Kristen Johnson describes what happens in an “amydala hijacking” episode:

Johnson. K. Amygdala Hijack & Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved from YouTube 15-August-2018.

When we are in situations where we perceive that our survival is threatened, the amygdala releases a surge of the stress inducing homrone cortisole, causing us to enter self-preservation mode. (Stankus, 2009). The brain stem releases norepenephrine, which seizes the muscles and prepares the body to fight or flee. (Steiner, 2015). We stop using the other parts of our brain until the threat is alleviated, but often we are in a sort of cortisole hang over for several hours after. The amygdala is connected to the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area said to control more complex cognitive behaviours. During an “amygdala hijack,” our pre-frontal cortex ceases functioning, so learning cannot occur.

Think of the learners in your classes. Do you know what stressors are influencing them? What might (or already has) triggered their fight or flight response? And for those of us who work in the online learning environment, how can we alleviate the triggers that might cause “amygdala hijack” in our learners? In a face to face situation, an educator might have strategies in place to help de-escalate stressful situations. But what measures can we put in place in the online learning environment environment to alleviate the potential for “amygdala hijacking”?

As instructors and designers of educational experiences, we must be cognizant of the potential for stressors to negatively affect our learners’ ability to learn. In her eLearning series on the Sh!ft ELearning Blog (Gutierrez, 2015), Karla Gutierrez describes the need to study the emotions of the learner and design learning experiences around those. We know our learners need different types of experiences to ensure that all of learning styles are addressed, but we also need to understand the psychology of emotion and how that relates to learning. Gutierrez reminds us that students learn better when they are feeling safe and positive. In the article “Calming the Brain During Conflict,” Diane Hamilton describes mindful breathing and counting activities to calm the brain and re-engage focus to the prefrontal cortex, and other activities to calm the brain. So perhaps a learning experience designed around this breathing and counting technique will help the learners in the online experience. Incorporating strategies to help the students learn to self-soothe in situations of “amygdala hijack” will help the learners de-escalate situations on their own. By mindfully creating significant learning experiences, we can create low stress instructional experiences and environments that help to ensure that learners do not become overwhelmed or anxious.


Dahl, L. (2008). Brain [Photograph]. Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0), retrieved from 15-August-2018.

Gutierrez, K. (2017). Want to Design Emotional eLearning? Understand The Role of Emotions in Learning First. Sh!ft: Disruptive learning ( Retrieved from 15-August-2018.

Hamilton, D. (2015). Calming your brain during conflict. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from 15-August-2018.

Harapnuik, D., Thibodeaux, T., & Cummings, C. (2018). COVA: Choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning

Johnson, K. (2014). Amygdala Hijack & Emotional Intelligence [Video]. Retrieved from YouTube ( on 15-August-2018

Lee, I. How to reduce anxiety & improve creativity: Amygdala brain games. Change your energy wellness guide. Retrieved from on 15-August-2018.

Stankus, T. (2009). The amygdala’s role in learning, memory, social intelligence, criminal behavior, mood disorders and especially the retention of traumatic memories in adult PTSD. SLA Biomedical & Life Sciences Division Blog. Retrieved from 15-August-2018.

Steiner, M. (2015). The Neuroscience of test anxiety. Compass Education Group Blog. Retrieved from 15-August-2015.



1 thought on “The Effects of Amygdala Hijacking in Online Learning

  1. Pingback: Win Over Hearts First | Adventures in Digitial Learning & Leadership

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