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Anxiety Could be a Good Thing in a Crisis: How Brains Respond to Social Cues

First Posted: Dec 30, 2015 07:56 AM EST
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Do you get anxious easily? This could be a good thing in a crisis. Scientists have found that the brain devotes more processing resources to social situations that signal threat than those that are benign.

Many people know about a "sixth sense" that we have for danger. But what if the ability to devote more resources to specific situations could explain that sixth sense? In this latest study, the researchers looked at social threats and how our brains respond to them.

Facial displays of emotion can be ambiguous. In this case, though, researchers managed to identify what it is that makes a person particularly threatening. They found that the direction a person is looking in is key to enhancing our sensitivity to their emotions. Anger paired with a direct gaze produces a response in the brain in only 200 milliseconds, which is faster than if the angry person is looking elsewhere.

The scientists also found that anxious individuals detect threat in a different region of the brain from people who are more laid-back. This difference, though, may serve a useful purpose; anxious people process threats using regions of the brain responsible for action. Meanwhile, low anxious people process them in sensory circuits, which are responsible for face recognition.

"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," said Marwa El Zein, lead author of the new study, in a news release.

The findings reveal that anxiety may actually help people process threats. With that said, the researchers hope to also determine whether the same is true for people with anxiety scores in the clinical range.

The findings are published in the journal eLife.

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