AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 27, Number 2, 2018


The Brain Prioritizes Threats, Especially in Anxious People

Research published in the journal eLife demonstrated how the brain devotes more processing resources to social situations that signal threat than those that are benign. This study represents the first time that specific regions of the brain have been identified to be involved in the “sixth sense” humans tend to have for detecting social threats. Scientists also discovered that anxious individuals detect threat in a different region of the brain compared to people who are more laidback. It was previously thought that anxiety could lead to oversensitivity to threat signals. However, the new study shows that anxious people process threats using regions of the brain responsible for action and ‘low anxious’ people process them in sensory circuits responsible for facial recognition. Facial displays of emotion can be ambiguous, however, researchers managed to identify what factors make 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, 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,” said the study’s lead author. 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. Electrical signals measured in the brains of 24 volunteers were analyzed 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 1,080 trials were carried out. To read more about this study, click here.

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