By Joshua Freedman

This is what happens in your brain when you get really mad — or really anything!

The routes from sensation to action are depicted in this brain. The journey begins with sensation — in this case vision — which is routed to the thalamus. The thalamus acts as “air traffic controller” to keep the signals moving. In a typical situation, the thalamus directs the impulse to the cortex — in this case the visual cortex — for processing. The cortex “thinks” about the impulse and makes sense. “Aha,” it says, “this is an exclamation mark! It means I should get excited.” That signal is then sent to the amygdala (ah-mîg´dah-lah) where a flood of peptides and hormones are released to create emotion and action.

Under threat (at least the perception thereof), the thalamus has a different reaction. Like any skilled air traffic controller, the thalamus can quickly react to potential threat. In that case, it bypasses the cortex — the thinking brain — and the signal goes straight to the amygdala. The amygdala can only react based on previously stored patterns. This process was articulated by Joseph LeDoux in The Emotional Brain, and then well explained by Dan Goleman as “The Hijacking of the Amygdala.”