You may not be a superhero, but if you’re prone to anxiety, then your friends may want to look to you in a dangerous situation.
The following article is an edited press release.
New findings by French researchers show that the brain devotes more processing resources to social situations that signal threat than those that are benign.
They found that anxious individuals detect threat in a different region of the brain from people who are more laid-back.
The results in the journal eLife may help explain the apparent “sixth sense” we have for danger.
Anxious people process threats using regions of the brain responsible for action. Meanwhile, ‘low anxious’ people process them in sensory circuits, responsible for face recognition.
This is the first time that specific regions of the brain have been identified to be involved in the phenomenon.
Facial displays of emotion can be ambiguous but the researchers managed to identify what it is that makes a person particularly threatening.
Anger paired with a direct gaze produces a response in the brain in only 200 milliseconds, faster than if the angry person is looking elsewhere.
“In a crowd, you will be most sensitive to an angry face looking towards you, and will be less alert to an angry person looking somewhere else,”
says lead author Marwa El Zein from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and the Ecole Normale Supérieurein Paris.
Similarly, if a person displays fear and looks in a particular direction you will detect this more rapidly than positive emotions.
Such quick reactions could have served an adaptive purpose for survival. For example, we evolved alongside predators that can attack, bite or sting.
A rapid reaction to someone experiencing fear can help us avoid danger.
“In contrast to previous work, our findings demonstrate that the brain devotes more processing resources to negative emotions that signal threat, rather than to any display of negative emotion,” says El Zein.
Electrical signals measuredin the brains of 24 volunteers were analysed while they were asked to decide whether digitally altered faces expressed anger or fear.
Some faces displayed exactly the same expression, but the direction of their gaze was altered. A total of 1080 trials were carried out.
It has often been theorized that elevated anxiety, even in a non-clinical range, could impair the brain’s processing of threats. However, El Zein and her co-authors instead found that non-clinical anxiety shifts the neural ‘coding’ of threat to motor circuits, which produce action, from sensory circuits, which help us to recognize faces.
The researchers note that it would be interesting to determine whether the same is true for people with anxiety scores in the clinical range.