Senior Coltan Parker has spent nearly the last year of his life thinking about the amygdala — a part of the brain that’s responsible for updating the emotional value of stimuli. His Honors Project, which he’ll defend May 20, centers around exercise and stress. He’s tested the relationship between a particular noise with a specific emotion on rats and looked at how to manipulate the system through exercise. The core, he says, is how exercise can prime a brain to recover from trauma.
Below is an excerpt of a TKS interview with him.
TKS: What’s your personal stake in your Honors Project?
CP: I don’t think I’m someone who’s experienced a lot of trauma. But I am very close with a lot of people on this campus who have been victims of sexual assault, victims of armed robberies, all kinds of different things that resonate with a person in a unique way. Singular experiences that really last, and that’s something that I empathize with quite a bit, and I think it’s something especially salient on campus with the Title IX climate. It’s a very real thing, so that was another deciding factor. But it’s not like it’s for me, or for a family member, but at the same time the ideas are pretty broad. Everybody has an emotional life and everybody has anxieties, and I think being curious in ways to make a brain more able to do what it should be able to live a healthier life is positive.
TKS: What have you found so far?
CP: I’m in the midst of digging through the data. One part of this I didn’t foresee is: How do you measure fear? There’s no good way, and it’s even worse when it’s an animal … a rat you just have to guess, but you have to guess scientifically. … I have video of hours and hours and hours of rats doing different things while I play noises for them, and a big part of this has been watching those videos and trying to rate in an objective way as possible is how the rats are acting. And trying to assign numbers to that that kind of show this is how afraid the rat actually is. That’s been a long process of trying to remove myself from it.
TKS: What’s surprised you the most?
CP: I was most surprised by two things: How hard it is to plan an experiment like this and how many things there are that nobody thinks about. You have to think, “What did I wear last time I was working with the rats? Did I shower? Do I smell the same? Do they recognize me?” … Thinking about all the things I have to try to control is hard. Another thing that has been difficult or that I didn’t expect was how the experience of working with animals was going to be, and how tricky it’s been. I’ve had a lot to think about, because part of my experiment involves killing them. I have killed 16 of them to take their brains and do a particular kind of biochemical analysis looking for a particular change. I’ve had to be complicit in the death of 16 animal – animals I’ve spent a month and a half with every single day, … I really had to negotiate my place in that. Do I believe in this? And I do, but it’s been a tough kind of relationship to understand.
TKS: What advice do you have for students hoping to pursue an Honors Project?
CP: In a contradictory way, you have to be very very devoted to a small idea. You have to be very ready to invest an idea of your life and all the nuances it, but you also have to be ready for it to change underneath you in any given direction or to be ready to scrap it after a month and start over. É It took me a while before I landed at something that was a good combination of interesting and doable.
TKS: Anything else I should know?
A lot of people are like, “So do you think exercise is going to cure these issues?” No, of course I don’t. That’s ridiculous. I’m not interested in curing or fixing, necessarily. I’m more interested in understanding ways that people can really optimize what your brain can do, because your brain is an organ as a job, and that job is to give you an emotional and sensory experience you can interact with. Everybody has organs that aren’t perfect, and everything you do changes in a different way, and something like exercise, something like meditating, something like eating a different diet changes the chemistry of your body and it also does that to your brain. It’s an interesting leap to make, but it’s not a leap at all. … That’s another part of my project, is opening up the door for me and hopefully other people to think about ways that something like exercise or anything else could be affecting your mental, emotional, psychological world in the same way it affects your lungs, your heart – anything else you want to take care of.