The amygdala acts like an emotional watchdog,
constantly alert for signs of threat. If an experience
registers as potentially dangerous, the amygdala
broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which
sets off a surge of physiological responses, from the re-
lease of adrenaline and noradrenaline to speeded-up
heart rate to rising blood pressure and muscles mobi-
lized for fight or flight. We may explode with rage or
freeze in fear well before our conscious minds can as-
sess what’s happening, much less persuade us to pause
long enough to think about what to do.
When the amygdala tries to assess whether a situ-
ation is dangerous, it compares the situation with past
emotionally charged events. If any of the key elements
of the situation—tone of voice, facial expression—are
similar, the amygdala sounds its warning siren and
sets off an accompanying emotional reaction.
The role of this hair-trigger brain mechanism in
creating marital misery has been documented by John
Gottman’s research at the University of Washington.
What Gottman found was that the brain’s atavis-
tic emotional reactions were highly correlated with
criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. The emerging
portrait of the emotional brain offers an illuminat-
ing window on why many clients find it so difficult
to contain their reactivity in intimate relationships. It
turns out that the trajectory of divorce often originates
with frequent, nasty arguments that eventually cause
partners to develop a kind of bio-emotional hypersen-
sitivity to each other.
For those who wish people could just learn to get
along, the point to remember is that the amygdala
often sets off its emotional fireworks before the neo-
cortex ever gets into the act. That’s why a clinician can
spend hours getting a couple to communicate better
only to see the whole thing go up in smoke when one
partner says something that feels to the other like an
arrow to the heart—or, to put it in the present context,
activates a primitive neural circuit.
-The Essentials of Family Therapy