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Behaviour and Our Brain

Three areas of our Brian

There are three areas of the brain – 

1. Neocortex (rational/thinking brain)

2. Limbic (emotional/feeling brain)

3. Reptilian (instinctual/dinosaur brain)

Neocortex – Frontal lobes of brain, the ‘newest’ part of the brain = about 85% of total brain mass, its functions and capabilities include:

  • Problem-solving

  • Reasoning and reflection

  • Self-awareness

  • Kindness, empathy and concern

  • Creativity and imagination

Limbic – Also known a mammalian and emotional brain – has the same chemical systems and structure of other mammals – it triggers strong emotions that need to be managed well by rational brain. This part of brain activates: 

• Rage and fear and separation distress

• Caring, nurturing and social bonding

• Playfulness and explorative urge

• Lust in adults
Reptilian – This is the deepest, most ancient part of brain – we share this with all other vertebrates. It activates instinctive behaviour linked to survival and controls essential bodily functions required for sustaining life, including:

• Fight or flight

• Hunger and digestion/elimination

• Breathing and circulation and temperature

• Movement, posture and balance

• Territorial instincts

the Amygdala

The Amygdala is an almond-shaped group of neurons in the lower brain (limbic system), and is possibly one of the most heavily studied of the brains structures. It is involved in many of our emotions, particularly ‘survival’ emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure.  

  • Why is it important when understanding challenging behaviour?

  • Sends distress signal to body to prepare for fight or flight – increase in heart rate, hypervigilance etc.

  • Floods body with stress hormones

  • Overrules our conscious minds – causes ‘Amygdala Hijack’.

In certain individuals amygdala is undiscerning – ‘hijack’ occurs if they feel blamed for something, unfairly treated or hurt in some way.  They are not able to think clearly, prone to overreaction and often do something that they (may) later regret  

The Amygdala Hijack

The Amygdala Hijack is why children and young people with spectrum conditions cannot register that they have done a particular behaviour.

Sometimes your emotions hijack your brain, whether it be because your day has been terrible, you are not feeling well, or something triggers off an emotion that you didn't remember even existed... for whatever reason, your thinking-brain (neocortex) does not have enough time to kick in and your emotional brain (amygdala) just takes over. This... is an amygdala hijacking.
Amygdala hijackings are when we are so emotional that we behave in an irrational way, which (most but not all of us) appreciate is irrational once we are able to 'think clearly' again. In other words, we come to regret our actions once our thinking-brain has taken over again.
When the emotional centre of your brain - your amygdala - is hijacked, you are literally not able to think straight. Your thinking-brain is side-stepped and you're running on pure emotions (linked to the old limbic ‘fight or flight’ brain) with not a logical thought in sight...  
Studies have found that you're in this state of amygdala hijacking for an average of 18 minutes. For this time you are highly illogical, emotional, and basically in 'fight mode'. You are not able to think reasonably for these 18 minutes.  When this passes, you still have the 'fight or flight' hormones (e.g. cortisol) racing through your body for another 3-4 hours, during which time you'll still be rather defensive, sensitive and prone to emotional reactions

The ANger Mountain

When talking about anger it can be very hard for us to grasp the idea of escalating behaviour and at what point things become uncontrollable. We use the anger mountain to describe and visualize the build-up and release of ‘emotions’. We use the word emotions as although the Anger mountain particularly looks at the build of anger it is normally not the overriding emotion in a situation.

Anger is used as an umbrella term and covers many different emotions. Anger is normally the secondary emotion and is a natural human response especially in those who are unable to or find difficulty in communicating. Other emotions encased under the anger umbrella can include but are not limited to :

  • Frustration

  • Sadness

  • Embarrassment

  • Joy

  • Fear

  • Excitement


It is often those who find it difficult to convey these different emotions that display ‘anger’ as a way of dealing with this surge of emotion/emotions.

1. A Neurotypical person (someone without a neurological disorder), would normally begin their day at base camp, with no anxieties or worries about the day ahead.

2. Throughout the day we are all subjected to ‘triggers’ these could be small incidents such as being late to catch a bus, or not being able to find something in the morning or the children not getting their uniforms on for school. As each of these unresolved pressures and incidents occur we move up the Anger Mountain towards the peak, it is important to note that if issues are resolved i.e. you find your lost items we are able to move back down the mountain.

3. If these incidents continue to happen and we are unable to resolve them we head towards the summit. Once we have taken all we can this is where we hit the ‘melt down’ or the blow out stage’. It is at this point that we are no longer able to cope with the pressures and this may resolve in us shouting, arguing in some becoming violent and so on. During this stage we are unable to accept logical reason, debate, negotiate or bring ourselves down naturally. It is important to note that when someone is in this position they are unable to process verbal information, and it is normally best practice to let them calm down before engaging again. We just need to make sure the environment is safe for them and that they are unable to cause harm to themselves or others.

4. After a period of time we enter the cooling off period, where we have vented and some of our frustrations have begun to release, in most cases engaging in a negotiation or debate about the behaviour will cause a person to return straight back the summit and continue their ‘blowout’ or ‘meltdown’. Once the person has calmed fully they will enter the calming period, it is at this stage that you can introduce calming techniques in relation to your child, i.e. sensory play or other calming strategies. Do not address the behaviour at this point either.

5. Once a person has fully calmed then would be the time to address the behaviour and talk about why it wasn’t appropriate and other ways to manage a situation. Please not that it may take some individuals up to 24 hrs to reach this point it will completely depend on them and the situation.

Those with a neurological disorder will not always begin at base camp and may begin their day already half way up the mountain meaning they will require less incidents and triggers to reach the summit.

Published 13/11/2019

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