anxious women

Anxiety Moves You to the Left

For the latest in our neuropsychology series, I thought I would go a little off the beaten path. Please don’t take this to mean the content doesn’t have real insights for us. In fact, we often get more wisdom from the unusual – there is more to learn.

So read on to learn more:

A study by Mario Weick and his team at the University of Kent conducted a study that looked at two variables you might not think are related. He blindfolded his participants and instructed them to talk in a straight line towards a target that he had showed them just before putting on the blindfold. (kind of like pin the tail on the donkey).

Scientists have discovered that feeling anxious makes people begin veering to the left because their right hand side of the brain is so active.
Dr Mario Weick of the School of Psychology at the University of Kent has for the first time linked the activation of the brain’s two hemispheres with shifts in people’s walking trajectories.

And here is where it gets unusual. Participants who reported high levels of stress or anxiety veered to the left during their blindfolded walk.

Huh? What do stress or anxiety have to do with walking direction or accuracy?

Here is the hypothesis: There has been past evidence from fMRI studies that anxiety and stress have more activation of brain areas in the right hemisphere than in the left hemisphere. Walking uses both. So if the right is more taxed, the person’s walk will use more of the left side and the walking direction will veer to the left.

A more nuanced hypothesis could take this a step further. The action-observation network is involved in inferring what other people are thinking (cognitive empathy) and feeling (affective empathy). If an audience wants us to fail at a task, this would increase stress and anxiety and interfere with motor coordination. Particularly fine motor control in the inferior parietal cortex.

Because of our usual disclaimer not to infer too close a link between individual brain areas and human behavior, let’s take a more general look. If a person perceives that her audience is rooting for her to fail, stress goes up and performance goes down. This explains choking under pressure.

But if we train people to reframe their thinking and imagine that the audience wishes them the best, stress goes down and performance goes up. The risk of choking goes down. Kind of reminds me of that advice for people who get stressed out during public speaking to imagine their audience in their underwear.

Your Turn

Does this make any sense? Is it too far a reach? Let us know.

Image Credit: Ichiban Yada

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