Understanding the Simple Science Behind Meltdowns

By Lori Harris, President Superpowers For Good February 14, 2024

Meltdown. What do you see when you think of that word?

Screaming, crying, kicking, hitting? A child in a restaurant throwing down, a student getting ready to take a test and “losing it”, an adult with road rage? Typically, people think of these more intense reactions.

Meltdowns happen. We have all seen them. Some of us may have even experienced them. The trigger can be a significant event or something as simple as a broken crayon. In public, reactions to the meltdown vary from person to person. Some look away, some stare. Some make rude or unhelpful comments. Very few people actually understand the simple science behind meltdowns, including people in the healthcare profession, teachers and first responders.

In order to understand what is going on before and during a meltdown, how to manage the meltdown, then figure out a solution to prevent meltdowns in the future, we need to first begin with an understanding of brain development, its maturation, and the visual system.

Brain 101. The human brain develops inside out, bottom to top, and back to front. Putting this into perspective, the primitive area of the brain develops first. The prefrontal cortex, the executive planning area of the brain, develops last. The primitive area of the brain houses the amygdala. It is the irrational, crazy part of your brain that requires no thought, just quick, intense, “fight or flight” reactions needed in life threatening situations. In primitive times, we needed these reflexes to keep us alive. The caveman, for example, when hunting for food used these reflexes to keep from being the hunted. Over the years, humans have become more and more civilized and do not need the “fight or flight” response in our typical day-to-day lives. Exceptions to that are people with dangerous jobs or people who live in dangerous areas. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is the rational, logical part of your brain. It'is where imagery is created. The prefrontal cortex allows us to draw on past experiences, “see” a solution, then plan our actions to proceed through whatever incident or event we are facing.


Every human develops along the same neurological hierarchies. We begin in utero with primitive reflexes emerging, preparing us for birth. The very first, and the most crucial primitive reflex that emerges is balance. While in utero, a properly developing infant will position themselves with the head down preparing for birth. When an infant is not in the proper birthing position, we know that the infant’s development is delayed. Without balance integrated, the brain’s processing speed and capacity is greatly diminished, leading to physical, emotional, and learning struggles.

After the infant is born, more primitive reflexes are integrated, usually within the first six months of life. Then, we move on to movement/touch, aka the Terrible Two’s, auditory/verbal, and finally, ocular motor and visual dominance. Visual dominance gives us the ability to learn quickly, efficiently, with

long-term retention.


Let’s talk about the visual system. Eighty percent of all the information that our brain receives is through the visual system. The other twenty percent is through our other senses – hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. For clarity, when we discuss the visual system, we are not referring to eyesight acuity. We are referring to the two main processing pathways in the visual system, the magnocellular stream (right side), and the parvocellular stream (left side). To make it easier, we will use “left brain” and “right brain”.

 Information comes in through the eyes, travels through the brain to the visual cortex located in the back of the brain. The information then leaves the visual cortex and travels back through the brain to the prefrontal cortex located in the front of the brain. The left brain (parvocellular) pathway is the pathway that leaves the visual cortex and moves ventrally through the left side of the brain. It travels through Broca’s Area of communication before continuing to the prefrontal cortex. This pathway is responsible for processing fine visual details and color information. It also influences language. The information that comes in through this pathway is from our central vision. The right brain (magnocellular) pathway is the pathway that leaves the visual cortex and moves dorsally through the right side of the brain. It travels through the superior parietal lobe on its way to the prefrontal cortex. This pathway is responsible for processing motion and depth perception. It also influences our perception of space and time and executive planning. The information coming in through this pathway comes from our peripheral vision. Another way to describe the functions of the two pathways would be “focus” with the left-brain pathway, “big picture” with the right brain pathway.


If the information is coming through simultaneously and the person is attending to both pathways, imagery is created. Imagery is the moment of knowing; how we learn quickly, efficiently, and gives us the ability to retain information eidetically for instant recall. How we distribute our attention to these pathways is of utmost importance. Since it is impossible to attend to both pathways simultaneously, we must toggle between the two at a rapid rate. When we choose to neglect information coming in through either of the pathways, it creates significant issues. For example, when we choose to neglect the left-brain pathway, we see problems with language and communication. When we choose to neglect the right brain pathway, we have issues with seeing through space and time properly, depth perception, and we can experience meltdowns or exaggerated responses.

When we get stressed or “overloaded”, we try to block out the extra sensory input that we are receiving through our right brain pathway. Our attentional distribution to the right brain pathway collapses. We become more and more “focused” instead of seeing the “big picture”. While it doesn’t seem like a bad thing to get more and more “focused”, it puts the person in a state of sequential thinking allowing for processing only one thing at a time. Everything becomes much harder, and in a vicious cycle, we spiral downward.


The right brain pathway is the only one of the two pathways that can take a detour from its intended route through the brain. The detour is available at the superior colliculus, allowing it access to the primitive part of your brain - the amygdala. 

Here comes the meltdown.

When the amygdala is activated, several things happen physiologically that result in the “fight or flight” response. In an instant, the amygdala highjacks both the body and the mind. The amygdala fires off a message, via that hypothalamus, to the pituitary gland. Queen of all hormones, the pituitary gland fires off a message to the adrenal glands that there is a life-threatening emergency that needs to be dealt with immediately. The adrenal glands spew catecholamines into the body. These catecholamines cause increased heart rate for optimum blood supply to the muscles, expanded lungs for additional air supply, excessive sugar release for instant increased energy, and dilated pupils to optimize the ability to see, all to prepare the body for the “fight or flight”. What we see happening brings to mind the image of “The Incredible Hulk” and his instant physical transformation when he gets angry. The initial release of catecholamines takes about 17-20 minutes to complete its course through the body. And there is nothing you can do about it.

What do you do to manage a meltdown? While there is nothing you can do about the catecholamines coursing through the body, you can take steps to avoid the meltdown lasting longer. When dealing with someone who is having a meltdown, stay calm. If you feel yourself getting upset, tap out. Let someone else take over. Now is not the time to get upset or angry or threaten consequences for the behavior. Never in the history of the term “calm down” has that term ever helped anyone calm down. Meltdowns are no fun for anyone, particularly the person experiencing them. Most importantly and advantageously, respect the neurological hierarchies of human development!

The most primitive reflex, at the root of everything, is balance. There is nothing more effective than taking the complexity of balance out of the situation. It allows the brain to free up some capacity and processing speed. This gives the person the ability to function more effectively through the crisis. The easiest way to do this is to find a creative, non-physical way to get them to sit or lay on the floor. As a point of interest, the Vagal nerve, the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for reporting the state of the throat, heart, lungs, and digestive system back to the brain, is also activated. After the chemical release of the catecholamines, it reports back that they are in crisis mode. Attending to the Vagal nerve will help calm the situation. Interventions such as humming, gargling, blowing up a balloon, diaphragmatic breathing, lightly rubbing the ear, or sipping on ice water, all help calm the Vagal nerve, sending a message to the Insula and prefrontal cortex that all is well.

After the meltdown is over, you can engage in a calm, caring conversation to help the person think about future solutions for the crisis that they were unable to manage. Using this time to build a strong, trusting relationship is vital for future episodes. We can reduce, and in some cases eliminate, meltdowns. By understanding and utilizing our knowledge of the neurological hierarchies of human development, we can identify and integrate retained primitive reflexes, teach visual learning skills, and create a safe, loved, and fun learning environment in which failure is non-consequential. This is done through a series of simple looking, yet developmentally complex fun games. The only rule when playing these games is, if you fail, no big deal, just try again. This will build the skills and resilience needed to reduce and manage amygdala fires – “meltdowns”.

For more information, visit or call Lori Harris @ 231-360-3469