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Is Your Brain a Prickly Motion Detector?

July 12, 2011

The folks in Kagan’s study I referred to in my last posting are in their 20s now and those who were
labeled as highly reactive at birth, “remain anxious just below the surface, their subconscious brains still
twitchy, still hypervigilant, still unable to shift attention away from perceived threats that aren’t really
there,” writes Robin Marantz Henig in the New York Times piece.

Those of you who’ve been reading my blogs on stress know where this reactivity is coming from—
our amygdala, which in high reactors is “prickly as a haywire motion-detector light that turns on when
nothing’s moving but the rain,” explains Marantz Henig. “Other physiological changes exist in children
with this temperament, many of them also related to hyperreactivity in the amygdala. They have a
tendency to more activity in the right hemisphere, the half of the brain associated with negative mood
and anxiety; greater increases in heart rate and pupil dilation in response to stress; and on occasion
higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.”

When I first read this article, I burst into tears at the motion detector metaphor. I felt such a complex
array of emotions: relief that an explanation exists for why I am the way I am; sadness that it has taken
me 58 years to fully understand what’s been going on; compassion for the suffering I’ve experienced
which I now really understand is not “normal,” at least for 80% of us. Suddenly my whole life’s journey
to cultivate the positive emotions—happiness, gratitude, generosity, patience, self trust—made even
more sense. I’ve been trying to cope with a broken motion detector!

What about you? Does this resonate? If so, what is the effect on you of attributing how you’ve been
feeling and reacting to life as simply part of how you were hardwired at birth?


2 Responses to “Is Your Brain a Prickly Motion Detector?”

  1. toni said:

    I’m really enjoying this thread of articles–really meaningful to me and to many of my clients. I appreciate you writing about this (and would love a whole book on it, by you! 🙂 I would really enjoy learning more about this, in your particular “voice,” since you write in such a clear, accessible manner.

  2. MJ Ryan said:

    Thanks Toni. I am planning on doing something on this.