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A Biological Defense for Miss Utah's Cringe-Worthy Miss USA Pageant Answer


"...high stress can 'make your mind go blank' at the worst possible moments."

Miss Utah has been criticized, laughed at, felt sorry for and much more by anyone who saw her awkward response to a question about income inequality during the Miss USA Pageant Sunday. But biology says you should cut her some slack.

Recording artist and host Nick Jonas and television personality and host Giuliana Rancic look on as Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell answers a question from a judge during the interview portion of the 2013 Miss USA pageant at PH Live at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on June 16, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

As GeekOSystem points out, 21-year-old Marissa Powell had a natural fight-or-flight response that muddled up some of the function of her brain -- it could happen to anyone:

According to research by Erno Hermans of New York University, this type of shutdown is a fairly common a response to moments of high stress — like, for instance, being on stage at a nationally televised beauty pageant. In these situations, the brain shuts off the areas involved in creativity and abstract thinking as a perceived response to a physical threat, regardless of whether or not the threat you feel like you’re facing is physical in nature. An article in Time about a 2011 study by Hermans had this to say:

In the brain, the most active regions [are] part of the “fight or flight” network, including areas that monitor the body’s internal state, regions involved with fear and other emotions, and those involved with orienting attention. The more cortisol released, the greater the strength of the signaling seen in this network. Meanwhile, the parts of the prefrontal cortex involved in thought and reasoning began to shut down.

[...] basically, under stress, the brain automatically shifts its focus away from current activity — for example, doing homework or debating — and toward readiness for fight or flight. That’s why high stress can “make your mind go blank” at the worst possible moments. A faster but more primitive neural network takes over.

Now, Powell had a chance to redeem herself for her fumbled words Tuesday on the "Today" show. She explained that the question posed by NeNe Leaks was "a little bit confusing" and that she began speaking "without really processing."

Watch Powell's answer to the Leaks' question:

"Today" host Matt Lauer gave Powell a second go-around on national TV yesterday where she said unequal pay "is not OK."

"It needs to be equal pay for equal work. It's hard enough already to earn a living, and it shouldn't be harder just because you're a woman," she said.

Here's her appearance on the morning show:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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