Archive | June, 2013

Anxiety on the brain

17 Jun

A jack-in-the-box. Photo from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

I am an anxious person by nature. Crowds make me anxious. Driving at night makes me anxious. Loud noises in general, but shouting in particular, make me anxious — even if the shouting is not directed at me. But why? What makes me react to crowds this way, while others are not bothered in the least by crowds or loud noises?

There are probably lots of reasons. And, as with anything as complicated as the human brain, most of the reasons are probably intertwined with each other.

My therapist tells me anxiety is seeded in fear. I was recently talking with Koraly Pérez-Edgar, an associate professor of psychology here at Penn State, for last week’s episode of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations podcast. She told me that shy people often have an overactive amygdala, but you can listen to our conversation here as part of a segment titled “Inside the brain.”

Fear, shyness, overactive amygdala. Hmm.

Pérez-Edgar explained that the limbic system is what shapes your response to threat and novelty in the environment. And at the center of the limbic system is the amygdala. The amygdala is known to be the seat of emotion and your fight-or-flight reaction. When stimulated, it triggers your nervous system to momentarily freeze, assess the situation (likely quicker than you have time to process it), and then either stay put and defend or run away — the basic survival instinct.

So somehow, my amygdala has decided that nighttime driving and shouting are reasons for me to run away. While I am not a shy person, as the people Pérez-Edgar studies are, many of the things she described match my gut reactions. Perhaps I have an overactive amygdala after all.

I also discovered during our conversation that the children’s toy the jack-in-the-box can be a terrifying experience for many babies who turn out to be shy and have an overly sensitive amygdala.

“A lot of babies, they giggle, they laugh, they think it’s funny,” Pérez-Edgar said of the jack-in-the-box. “But these [shy] babies are terrified. They’re crying, they arch their back, they move their arms back around, their system has just said DANGER.”

As she described these reactions to me, I thought about a jack-in-the-box and how unappealing that experience seems to me, as an adult.

Immediately after we were done talking, I texted my mom, wanting to know if I hated jack-in-the-boxes when I was a baby. She didn’t remember. How can you not remember your first-born’s every experience?? My boyfriend pointed out that the jack-in-the-box was not really a popular toy when we were growing up. He insists on being the reality check in my life.

In any case, a baby’s overactive amygdala is likely linked to either his genes or his environment — in utero, during early development, or both. Or both his genes and environment influenced the amygdala.

Do I have an overactive amygdala? And if I do, why? It’s probably not worth my time to figure out right now. Meanwhile, I’ll keep practicing yoga to help keep my anxiety in check.

CSI Penn State: An Evening of Crime & Merriment with the DC Alumni Chapter

1 Jun

Sure, crime doesn’t pay. But when you have the chance to explore the Crime Museum after hours and to learn about DNA investigation from one of the top names in the business, it pays to attend. The folks from the spirited Metro Washington, DC Penn State Alumni Chapter knew it would be a crime to miss out and turned out in large numbers for the third “Research on the Road” event we’ve organized for and with them.


Chapter board members greet attendees in Crime Museum lobby.

More than 60 alumni chapter members of all ages and backgrounds joined in the evening’s activities, which kicked off with an interactive event at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, aka The Crime Museum. Participants took a serial killer profiling quiz, explored the science of fingerprinting, got (temporary!) old school prison tattoos and found out what the images symbolized, and even swung a hammer into red paint to learn about blood spatter analysis techniques.

The "America's Most Wanted" studio at the Crime Museum

The “America’s Most Wanted” studio at the Crime Museum

Afterward, we moved the party next door to DC’s well-known Chophouse restaurant for a private reception and talk by Penn State’s own Jenifer Smith.  Jeni, a retired FBI special agent and DNA analyst, is a Penn State alumna herself as well as a former member of the Blue Band. After retiring from the FBI, she joined Penn State’s Forensic Science faculty in 2010. Jeni’s professional expertise is matched only by her warmth and humor. She led us through a fascinating look at the field of forensic science, the myths and realities of life as a crime scene investigator, and some memorable cases she helped crack—as well some unsolved mysteries. We also learned about the growth of Penn State’s Forensic Science Program within the Eberly College of Science (check out the Probing Question on the program’s home page!) and had a lively Q&A session with Jeni, who graciously stayed chatting with us long after the event.


Jenifer Smith had the crowd intently listening, laughing
and learning.

DC folks, you lived up to your reputation as one of the most vibrant groups of PSU alumni anywhere! Thanks for helping make the evening such a big success, packed with learning and fun.


Jeni stayed after the talk to make personal connections and answer questions. So appreciated!

Take a look at these additional photos for a peek at some of the evening’s highlights. Looking back, Research on the Road has shared great events centered around Penn State experts on political beliefs and the science of our taste buds. What’s next, guys? We’d love to bring more Research on the Road to our capital alumni in the ’13/’14 academic year!

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