The Brains of Anxious People May Perceive the World Differently

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iStock

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."

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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The Reason Some People Never Return Shopping Carts, According to Science

Abandoned shopping carts could be a sign of social dysfunction.
Abandoned shopping carts could be a sign of social dysfunction.
adisa/iStock via Getty Images

On the spectrum of aberrant behavior, leaving a shopping cart in the middle of a parking space doesn’t quite rise to the level of homicide. But poor cart etiquette is nonetheless a breakdown of the social fabric, one in which some consumers express little regard for others by failing to return a cart to its proper place. Why does this happen?

In a piece for Scientific American, Krystal D’Costa examined some plausible reasons why shoppers avoid the cart receptacle. It might be too far from where they parked, they might have a child that makes returning it difficult, the weather might be bad, or they might have physical limitations that make returning it challenging. Alternately, they may simply believe it’s the job of the supermarket or store employee to fetch their used cart.

According to D’Costa, cart returners might be motivated by social pressure—they fear a disapproving glance from others—or precedent. If no other carts have been tossed aside, they don’t want to be first.

People who are goal-driven aren’t necessarily concerned with such factors. Their desire to get home, remain with their child, or stay dry overrides societal guidelines.

Ignoring those norms if a person feels they’re not alone in doing so was examined in a study [PDF] published in the journal Science in 2008. In the experiment, researchers observed two alleys where bicycles were parked. Both alleys had signs posted prohibiting graffiti. Despite the sign, one of them had markings on the surfaces. Researchers then stuck a flyer to the bicycle handles to see how riders would react. In the alley with graffiti, 69 percent threw it aside or stuck it on another bicycle. In the alley with no graffiti, only 33 percent of the subjects littered. The lesson? People might be more likely to abandon social order if the environment surrounding them is already exhibiting signs of neglect.

In another experiment, researchers performed the flyer trial with a parking lot that had carts organized and carts scattered around at separate times. When carts were everywhere, 58 percent of people left the flyers on the ground compared to 30 percent when the carts were cared for.

Social examples are clearly influential. The more people return carts, the more likely others will do the same. There will, of course, be outliers. Some readers wrote to D’Costa following her first piece to state that they didn’t return carts in order to keep store workers busy and gainfully employed, ignoring the fact that the primary function of those staff members is to get the carts from the receptacle and back to the store. It’s also rarely their primary job.

Until returning carts becomes universally-accepted behavior, random carts will remain a fixture of parking lots. And ALDI will continue charging a quarter deposit to grab one.  

[h/t Scientific American]