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The Neuroscience Behind Will Smith's Attack on Chris Rock

The Oscar-winning actor snapped due to a phenomenon called "amygdala hijack."

Key points

  • The amygdala is a brain region that is activated when we perceive something to be threatening.
  • The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for suppressing the reflexive behavioral response triggered by amygdala activation.
  • If the prefrontal cortex does its job, an individual should be able to self-correct before a violent response is executed.

In case you've been living under a rock, on Sunday night at the Oscars, actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock, one of the show’s award presenters.

If you’ve ever watched the Oscars, you know that comedians are expected to make the atmosphere a little less stuffy by roasting the audience. And remember, the audience is full of insanely rich and beautiful celebrities, so the roasting aims to bring these pop-culture gods back down to Earth. You can think of celebrity roasting as a sort of civic duty for comedians.

That being said, some might argue that Chris Rock went over the line when he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short haircut, which apparently is to hide her alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that makes you lose your hair. Rock said he was looking forward to seeing Pinkett in “G.I. Jane 2,” a reference to a 1997 movie that famously starred a bald Demi Moore as a female soldier.

I am not sure whether Rock knew that Pinkett had a condition or if he thought she was just sporting short hair—which she has done in the past, beautifully—but if he did not, then Will Smith certainly owed him an apology.

However, it is quite possible that Rock did know and chose to go there anyway. After all, another duty of the comedian is pushing the limits of what society can tolerate. But when you decide to take up that duty, there’s a certain amount of risk that comes along with it. Will Smith's actions were not justified, but all of us who have lost our temper at some point can sympathize. I do not condone his response, but as a neuroscientist, I know why it happened, and it is called “amygdala hijack.” To truly understand why Smith snapped, we must understand the role and interplay of two brain areas—the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is a brain region activated when we perceive something to be threatening. For example, if someone is shown a video of an attacker coming at them, functional brain imaging would show that the amygdala “lights up,” thus associated with the “fight or flight” response. If this neural structure is activated by some stimulus—such as a perceived attack, physical or emotional—then the individual may experience a strong urge to attack in response. This is called amygdala hijack because it is as if the fear center controls your behavior.

On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for suppressing the reflexive behavioral response triggered by amygdala activation. A function of the prefrontal cortex is regulating our emotions and controlling our urges. When the fear response kicks in, the front of the brain assesses the situation and modulates our actions accordingly. Amygdala hijack may induce a violent response, but if the prefrontal cortex does its job, the individual should be able to self-correct before the behavior is executed.

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.

And if he had been drinking that night, then his prefrontal cortex might have been inhibited to some degree. Interestingly, the video reveals that at first, Smith appeared to be laughing at Rock’s joke, so Smith’s amygdala was likely triggered later when he saw his wife’s upset expression. Who knows how she has been dealing with the emotional toll of alopecia takes on a person, especially as a female actor who is constantly judged by her appearance. This likely activated his mirror neuron system, which in turn produces feelings of empathy.

Now that we understand the neuroscience and psychology at play in the Oscar-night altercation, we can ask whether Smith was right or wrong in his actions and whether he should be forgiven and allowed to attend future Oscar ceremonies.

To answer that, we must understand that sympathizing or empathizing does not mean justifying or condoning. Smith was not justified in physically attacking Rock for doing what comedians are pretty much expected to do, even if the joke was cruel. As mentioned, without knowing if Rock knew about Pinkett’s alopecia, it is hard to judge whether his joke was inappropriate; but even if he did know, a violent response is unacceptable. Part of being a civilized human being is reining in our emotions and inhibiting our violent instincts. The prefrontal cortex is what separates us from lower primates.

At the same time, I can understand why Smith did what he did and can even see myself potentially responding similarly under similar conditions, and regretting my actions similarly. This was not the first time the Smiths have been the target of Rock’s Oscar roasting. In 2016, he made this joke about Jada Pinkett’s decision to boycott the ceremony due to a lack of diversity: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!”

In addition to amygdala hijack, the Smiths might have been anticipating an attack from Rock at some unconscious level, so in a sense, Will might have been primed for such an event. Priming refers to when “exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intent.” Similarly, Rock’s cool-headed response may also be a sign that, at some level, he was anticipating the possibility of some explosive reaction from one of the two Smiths.

What’s the lesson to be learned here? We can sympathize without justifying. Losing your cool means being human. Surely Will Smith’s good acts outweigh this one disappointing event. For that reason, I believe society and the Oscar committee should forgive him for his inappropriate actions. At the same time, Rock should also be forgiven and invited back to the Oscars to continue his celebrity roasting. We do not want future presenters to be fearful when making fun of celebrities. Thick skin should come with the territory.

We can all learn from this unfortunate event. The next time something “triggers” you, be mindful of your response and allow your prefrontal cortex to subdue the amygdala. In doing so, you will stop yourself from doing something you’ll regret later.

A version of this appears on Raw Story.