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The Brains of Anxious People May Perceive the World Differently

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A study showed that people with generalized anxiety disorder unconsciously label harmless things as threats, which may serve to further their anxiety. These findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

Psychologists recognize several forms of clinical anxiety. The most common is generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, in which people frequently feel very worried or anxious even when it seems like there’s nothing to worry about. Some studies have suggested that anxiety disorders may stem from a process called overgeneralization.

In overgeneralization, the brain lumps both safe and unsafe things together and labels them all unsafe. For this reason, the researchers also call this the “better safe than sorry” approach. Our brains naturally pay more attention to negative or threatening information in our environments. If anxious people perceive more threats in the world around them, it would make a lot of sense for them to be worried.

To find out if overgeneralization was involved, researchers recruited 28 people diagnosed with GAD and 16 people without anxiety and brought them into the lab. The experiment had two parts: training and testing. In the training section, study participants learned to differentiate between three different sounds. Each sound was tied to a different outcome; pressing a key could lead to winning money (the “positive” tone), losing money (the “negative” tone), or nothing (the “neutral” tone).

In the second phase of the experiment, researchers played 15 different sounds for the participants and asked them to press a key when they heard a sound they recognized from the training phase. If they guessed right, they’d win money, but if they guessed wrong, the researchers would take some of their money back.

Because of the risk of losing money, the best strategy for everyone would be a conservative one—not pressing the button much at all based on the assumption that most of the tones were new. But anxious participants were trigger-happy, believing they’d heard many of the unfamiliar tones before. The experience of winning and losing money in training had made a strong emotional impression on them, which led them to overgeneralize new information as relevant.

The researchers also administered brain scans during the testing phase. They found notable differences between anxious and non-anxious brains. While they were focused on parsing new information, anxious people showed more activation in several parts of the brain, including the amygdala, a region associated with fear and worry.

"We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over," senior co-author Rony Paz said in a press release. "Such plastic changes occur in primary circuits that later mediate the response to new stimuli, resulting in an inability to discriminate between the originally experienced stimulus and a new similar stimulus. Therefore, anxiety patients respond emotionally to such new stimuli as well, resulting in anxiety even in apparently irrelevant new situations. Importantly, they cannot control this, as it is a perceptual inability to discriminate."

Paz noted that in dangerous circumstances, the hyper-vigilance associated with anxiety might be a good thing. The problem is that most circumstances aren’t dangerous. "Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily," he says. "Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety."

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Tracing Vladimir Nabokov's 1941 Cross-Country Road Trip, One Butterfly at a Time
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Vladimir Nabokov is most famous as a writer, but the Russian scribe was also an amateur—yet surprisingly accomplished—lepidopterist. Nabokov first began collecting butterflies as a child, and after moving to the U.S. in 1940 he began volunteering in the Lepidoptera collections at the American Museum of Natural History.

The following year, the author took a cross-country road trip, driving 4000 miles from Pennsylvania to California. Along the way, he stopped at kitschy roadside motels, which provided atmospheric fodder for his 1955 novel Lolita. Nabokov also collected hundreds of butterfly samples at these rest stops, most of which he ended up donating to the AMNH.

Nabokov would go on to publish multiple scientific papers on lepidoptery—including the definitive scholarly study of the genus Lycaeides, or the “blues”—and produce perhaps thousands of delicate butterfly drawings. Multiple butterfly species were also named after him, including Nabokov’s wood nymph.

In the AMNH’s 360-degree video below, you can trace the author's 1941 cross-country road trip state-by-state, see some of the specimens he collected, and learn how museum curators are using his westward journey to better understand things like species distribution and migration patterns.

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Trying to Save Money? Avoid Shopping on a Smartphone
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Today, Americans do most of their shopping online—but as anyone who’s indulged in late-night retail therapy likely knows, this convenience often can come with an added cost. Trying to curb expenses, but don't want to swear off the convenience of ordering groceries in your PJs? New research shows that shopping on a desktop computer instead of a mobile phone may help you avoid making foolish purchases, according to Co. Design.

Ying Zhu, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, recently led a study to measure how touchscreen technology affects consumer behavior. Published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, her research found that people are more likely to make more frivolous, impulsive purchases if they’re shopping on their phones than if they’re facing a computer monitor.

Zhu, along with study co-author Jeffrey Meyer of Bowling Green State University, ran a series of lab experiments on student participants to observe how different electronic devices affected shoppers’ thinking styles and intentions. Their aim was to see if subjects' purchasing goals changed when it came to buying frivolous things, like chocolate or massages, or more practical things, like food or office supplies.

In one experiment, participants were randomly assigned to use a desktop or a touchscreen. Then, they were presented with an offer to purchase either a frivolous item (a $50 restaurant certificate for $30) or a useful one (a $50 grocery certificate for $30). These subjects used a three-point scale to gauge how likely they were to purchase the offer, and they also evaluated how practical or frivolous each item was. (Participants rated the restaurant certificate to be more indulgent than the grocery certificate.)

Sure enough, the researchers found that participants had "significantly higher" purchase intentions for hedonic (i.e. pleasurable) products when buying on touchscreens than on desktops, according to the study. On the flip side, participants had significantly higher purchase intentions for utilitarian (i.e. practical) products while using desktops instead of touchscreens.

"The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers' favor of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers' preference for utilitarian products," Zhu explains in a press release.

The study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on "experiential thinking" than subjects using desktop computers, whereas those with desktop computers demonstrated higher scores for rational thinking.

“When you’re in an experiential thinking mode, [you crave] excitement, a different experience,” Zhu explained to Co. Design. “When you’re on the desktop, with all the work emails, that interface puts you into a rational thinking style. While you’re in a rational thinking style, when you assess a product, you’ll look for something with functionality and specific uses.”

Zhu’s advice for consumers looking to conserve cash? Stow away the smartphone when you’re itching to splurge on a guilty pleasure.

[h/t Fast Company]

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