Psych. Department builds knowledge base
on threat assessment, hypervigilance © Jan. 28, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Psychology student Ryan Koch prepares volunteer Christine Daniels for a data-collection exercise on threat assessment utilizing eye-scanning technology. It is Koch's senior project.

photo by Jennifer LangillePsychology student Ryan Koch prepares volunteer Christine Daniels for a data-collection exercise on threat assessment utilizing eye-scanning technology. It is Koch’s senior project.

Norwich University student Mike Zemanek placed his chin and forehead into a head-restraint device like those used by eye doctors, and stared at a computer monitor awaiting instructions.

“I’ve got to set this real quick to make sure the machine can track you,” murmured psychology student Ryan Koch, intent on another computer screen perpendicular to the first. Both sat at a table in a small, closed room.

Koch instructed Zemanek to follow a dot on the screen with his eyes, and began to adjust equipment with staccato clicks of a mouse button. By recording the reflection off the subject’s pupil and cornea, the program would accurately track the movement and focus of his or her gaze, as well as pupil dilation.

I think it’s a great opportunity for them to learn while they’re doing important research.

Prof. Kevin Fleming,
Psychology Department

Satisfied, Koch instructed Zemanek to rate on a numerical scale a series of images that would flash before him on the computer screen in terms of their relative threat level. Then, Koch sat back as the 35-image slide show began to play.

Zemanek, a volunteer for Koch’s senior psychology research project, was shown pictures of people ranging from fashion models to police officers. Most faced the camera and were shown from head to toe. Zemanek logged his ratings on a keyboard between images.

A computer security student, Zemanek is also a police officer for the nearby town of Barre, Vt. Koch designed his research to learn how police officers identify and assess threat when they meet people. Most of the photo subjects were fairly ordinary-looking people, said Koch. There were no celebrities, extreme body types or weapons.

“I wasn’t trying to scare a person,” he said. “I was looking for a more average assessment of threat.”

When the test was over, Koch revealed that number ratings weren’t the only data he was collecting. Opening a computer file, Koch played a recording of Zemanek’s eye movements as his gaze skated over an image. A green line danced between the pictured person’s hands, chest, legs, groin, tattoos and jewelry, occasionally lingering for a split second. This gives him an idea of the subconscious priorities placed on those areas.

Zemanek was fascinated, and explained that he’s trained to identify the presence of a weapon before looking to a person’s face. “I figured [I would concentrate on] the hands and mid body,” he said.

Hypervigilance

Like many seniors, Koch has tied his research to an ongoing project that involves much of the Psychology Department. Students and professors have been gathering data on threat perception and hypervigilance—exceptional attunement to surroundings and activity linked to anxiety and considered a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, educates many recent veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, so much of the research has focused on this group and the effects of their experiences.

Samantha Stape, a senior from Williamstown, Vt., made her focus childhood trauma and its effect on hypervigilance. Rather than the eye-scanning technology used by Koch, she’s utilizing an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure a subject’s electrochemical reaction to aberrations in patterns of sounds.

The test includes a full series of assessments, in which the subject takes five paper surveys seeking information about levels of depression, childhood trauma, post-traumatic stress, hypervigilance and other forms of trauma.

By examining all this data, she's learning some interesting things. While childhood trauma is not necessarily showing a strong connection to hypervigilance, the post-traumatic stress survey suggested a dramatic difference in perception of threat between veterans and cadets—Norwich students who lead a military lifestyle. Veterans scored much higher on this scale.

“Kevin and I saw that and our jaws dropped,” said Stape, referring to Norwich psychology Prof. Kevin Fleming. “It was really high.”

Real-world research

Fleming, who has been working with a network of professors to gather data on hypervigilance, said Stape’s results correlate with previous findings. There are many questions to explore, however, and it is important not to try to diagnose causality. For example, high results on a hypervigilance scale may be unrelated to a veteran’s combat experience, as it is tempting to assume.

“Maybe soldiers are simply more attentive due to their training,” he said, adding that the scores they’re measuring from veterans simply suggest a higher level of awareness, not clinical PTSD or depression.

Many seniors choose projects that contribute to their body of data about hypervigilance, said Fleming. Others have ideas that are unrelated. In either case, he makes sure a student is on the right track and caps off his or her Norwich education with a project that is meaningful to their future plans.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for them to learn while they’re doing important research,” he said.

Stape, who works part time in a home for people with schizophrenia and other conditions, said she hopes to continue to use her skills to help people by “figuring out their brains.”

Koch, a senior from Mesa, Ariz., geared his project toward law enforcement, as he plans to become a police officer. He hopes to continue his study of threat assessment in the working world.

“Psychology is extremely applicable to law enforcement,” he said.