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If It’s Not in Your Head, Check Your Eyes

A Binghamton psychology student wants to understand how anxiety sufferers may ‘look’ at the world in a different way.

Over 19 million Americans — more than 13 percent of the total U.S. adult population — suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. It’s by far the most common mental illness in the country, and takes many forms from social anxiety to panic attacks.

Thanks to a remarkable Binghamton research collaboration, psychology doctoral student Casey Schofield thinks she might have found a clue to solving the mystery of why so many people see the world as such a threatening place. It may be that they are failing to attend to important social cues in facial expressions.

Schofield began to study anxiety disorders under her mentor Dr. Meredith Coles, director of the acclaimed Binghamton Anxiety Clinic and applied for a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to fund research into whether or not people suffering from anxiety disorders scan faces differently than people without anxiety disorders.

“A ‘normal’ scan path involves looking back and forth between the eyes and down to the mouth — an inverted triangle,” explains Schofield, “Whereas atypical scan patterns focus more on the nose or the hair or less useful social features.”

Schofield wanted to find out if there was something about these atypical eye movements that deceived anxiety suffers into misinterpreting neutral facial expressions and social cues as negative, critical or even menacing. Her collaboration with Dr. Albrecht Inhoff has enabled her to answer this question using the technology of eye-tracking. This  research methodology enables measurement of where people are looking on a computer screen.

After months of late nights writing the 40-page application, Schofield’s research dream came true: a $50,000 grant from the NIH plus an additional $1,000 dissertation award from the American Psychological Association.

After completing the current work, Schofield hopes to work with Professor Coles and Dr. Brandon Gibb, director of the Binghamton Mood Disorders Clinic, to eventually develop computer programs that slowly help anxiety sufferers change biases in the way that they scan faces.

“Once people are trained to focus on the neutral or positive social cues rather than on the negative ones, they also find a reduction in their anxiety symptoms,” she says about emerging research in the field.

Schofield is quick to give credit for the NIH grant to her mentor, Professor Coles. “From day one, she had me and the other graduate students in her lab involved in the grant process,” says Schofield. “So I learned a lot in the first couple of years that I was here about grantsmanship, the design of grants and the time it takes to put them together.”

Learn more about exciting research and clinical initiatives in the Binghamton Psychology Department.

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Last Updated: 6/17/09