The Neuroscience of Will Smith

You can learn about de-escalation by watching the Will Smith / Chris Rock incident at the 2022 Academy Awards.

Quick summary: Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on stage after Chris Rock made a joke about Will Smith’s wife.

Today I want to look at Will Smith’s brain when

  1. Chris Rock insulted Jada Pinkett Smith and,
  2. After the incident.


When Chris Rock made the joke about Jada Pinkett’s Smith’s shaved head, Will Smith’s Amygdala fired up.

The Amygdala

The Amygdala is the part of the brain most responsible for “fight or flight.” 

It is designed to keep you alive from physical dangers (like saber-tooth tigers trying to eat you).

The Amygdala responds VERY quickly (~ 1/10 of a second) because saber-tooth tigers don’t wait for you to make a plan.


Escalators are anything that activates a person’s Amygdala. Escalators push a person into fight/flight mode.

A growling saber-tooth tiger is an “Escalator” because danger activates the Amygdala.

Danger isn’t the only thing that activates the Amygdala, though.

Disrespect is also an “Escalator.” It activates the Amygdala, pushing the person into fight/flight mode.

I’ll say this again because it’s SUPER important – If a person feels disrespected, it fires up their brain in the same way as a dangerous threat.

Chris Rock’s “Escalator” and Will Smith’s Amygdala

Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith.

Will Smith’s Amygdala was activated, and he went into fight/flight mode.

Remember, the Amygdala responds quickly. Will Smith acted before he could think through his decision.

The joke was an “Escalator” because it activated Will Smith’s Amygdala.

Note: In his apology video, Will Smith explicitly said that the joke was “disrespectful.”


After the incident, fellow actor, Tyler Perry, was seen talking to Will Smith. Essentially, he was trying to de-escalate the situation by engaging Will Smith’s Prefrontal Cortex.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The Prefrontal Cortex is the part of the brain that is calm and rational and makes really good decisions.

It is designed to help you solve complicated problems.

It also “regulates” (calms down) the Amygdala.

Unfortunately, the Prefrontal Cortex is MUCH slower than the Amygdala.


“De-Escalators” are anything that engages a person’s Prefrontal Cortex. They help it to regulate the person’s Amygdala.

Being safe in your own home where saber-tooth tigers can’t get you is a “De-Escalator.”

Safety isn’t the only thing that engages the Prefrontal Cortex, though.

Respect is also a “De-Escalator.” It engages the Prefrontal Cortex, helping the person to regulate their Amygdala.

Again, this is SUPER important – showing a person respect helps to move their brain out of fight mode.

Tyler Perry’s “De-Escalator” and Will Smith’s Prefrontal Cortex

How did Tyler Perry de-escalate Will Smith?

We don’t know what Tyler Perry said, but we do know this:

  • In the pictures, Tyler Perry has a hand on Will Smith’s shoulder and looks both friendly and “respectful.”
  • Tyler Perry explicitly said later that he was “de-escalating” Will Smith.

Tyler Perry’s respectful treatment of Will Smith was the “De-Escalator.” It helped Will Smith’s Prefrontal Cortex engage and regulate his Amygdala.


What do you really need to know to de-escalate a situation?

Actually, it’s simple:

  • Do less “Escalators” (danger/disrespect) that activate the other person’s Amygdala.
  • Do more “De-Escalators” (safety/respect) that engage the other person’s Prefrontal Cortex.

Have a great week!


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