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|Who Do You Think You Are? - Page 8|
The Birth of a Persona
Back then, I had no idea that anyone else could possibly feel like me, much less be anything like me. But Kagan had a hunch that many preadolescents felt dogged by their timid, tense temperaments—especially internally. When his study subjects turned 11, they trooped back into his laboratory for yet another follow-up, this one augmenting observation and interviews with a battery of biological measures. From the beginning, Kagan had suspected that the temperamental differences between high-reactive and low-reactive kids were partially due to distinctive, inherited neurochemical profiles in the amygdala, the early-warning system in the brain that he believed was activated in response to any unexpected or unfamiliar event, not only fearful ones.
He theorized that, in response to new stimuli, such as a roomful of strangers, the amygdala of the low-reactive person would produce the equivalent of a blinking yellow light, causing the individual to become more aware of the new crowd, but not alarmed by it. In many high-reactive people, by contrast, Kagan believed that an identical roomful of strangers would spur the amygdala to signal an imminent emergency. In fact, among Kagan's 11-year-old subjects, twice as many high-reactives as low-reactives displayed indirect markers of an excitable amygdala in response to a new situation, including a more reactive sympathetic nervous system, higher levels of muscle tension, and greater cortical arousal.
By the time the teens returned for their next follow-up, at age 15, most had maintained their level of biological reactivity. But now there was a new twist: many high-reactive adolescents no longer behaved in accordance with their bodily reactions. Many 15-year-olds who'd been high-reactive infants and who currently showed signs of an excitable amygdala now appeared relatively poised and tranquil in their conversations with unknown interviewers. Some were downright chatty. This development riveted Kagan: how could a person behave so calmly when his or her amygdala was in full-out alarm mode? To try to unravel this enigma, he invited the teens to talk about the felt experience that lay beneath their public sangfroid. In his 2006 book, An Argument for Mind, Kagan writes that many of the seemingly gregarious kids reported "a penetrating tension when they anticipated entering a crowd, meeting a stranger, traveling to a new place, rejection by a friend . . . . A few high-reactive adolescents who appeared full of energy, spontaneity, and vivacity told the interviewer that they disliked being touched, had trouble sleeping before examinations, or experienced periods of profound sadness." Overall, these hypersensitive teens were more prone to bouts of anxiety and depression than their low-reactive counterparts.