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People with anxiety show fundamental differences in perception

anxiety disorder

People suffering from anxiety perceive the world in a fundamentally different way than others, according to a new study. The research may help explain why certain people are more prone to anxiety. The study shows that people diagnosed with anxiety are less able to distinguish between a neutral, “safe” stimulus (in this case, the sound of a tone) and one that had earlier been associated with gaining or losing money.

In other words, when it comes to emotionally-charged experiences, they show a behavioral phenomenon known as “over-generalization,” the researchers say.

“We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over,” says Prof. Rony Paz of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

“Such plastic changes occur in primary circuits, and these later mediate the response to new stimuli. The result is an inability to discriminate between the experience of the original stimulus and that of a new, similar stimulus.”

“Therefore anxiety patients respond emotionally to the new stimuli as well and exhibit anxiety symptoms even in apparently irrelevant situations. They cannot control this response: it is a perceptual inability to discriminate.” 

Paz and his colleagues recruited anxiety patients to participate in the study. They trained the patients to associate three distinct tones with one of three outcomes: money loss, money gain, or no consequence. In the next phase, the participants were presented with one of several new tones and were asked whether the tone was one they had heard before while in training. If they were right, they were rewarded with money.

The best strategy would be to take care not to mistake (or over-generalize) a new tone for one they had heard in the training phase. But people with anxiety were more likely than healthy controls to think that a new tone was one they had heard earlier. That is, they were more likely to mistakenly associate a new tone with the earlier experience of money loss or gain. Those differences were not explained by differences in participants’ hearing or learning abilities. The research shows that they simply perceived sounds that were earlier linked to an emotional experience differently.

Functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) of the brains of people with anxiety and those of healthy controls revealed differences in the activity of several brain regions. These differences were mainly found in the amygdala, a region related to fear and anxiety, as well as in the primary sensory regions of the brain. These results strengthen the idea that emotional experiences induce long-term changes in sensory representations in anxiety patients’ brains.

The findings might help explain why some people are more prone to anxiety than others. The underlying brain plasticity that leads to anxiety isn’t in itself bad.

“Anxiety traits can be completely normal; there is evidence that they benefitted us in our evolutionary past. Yet an emotional event, sometimes even a minor one, can induce brain changes that can potentially lead to full-blown anxiety,” Paz says.

Understanding how the process of perception operates in anxiety patients may help lead to better treatments for the disorder.

Laufer, O., Israeli, D., & Paz, R. (2016). Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms of Overgeneralization in Anxiety Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.01.023

4 responses

  1. Leah Defore

    Imagine worrying about what might cause you to have a panic attack. Will one wrong action/move send you into the cold sweats that could ruin your night? No wonder people who suffer from anxiety perceive the world as a different as someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety. The people who don’t suffer from anxiety don’t have to worry about what could send them into an embarrassing panic attack.
    According to Goldberg (2016) doctors are not sure what causes anxiety. Kalat (2014) says that “humans have bigger and better brains than other species” if that is so why do we have conditions such as anxiety disorder? Animals may experience these but since it is impossible for them to communicate that with us we as humans believe we have bigger brains. Humans might have been able to involve where other species did not but there were a lot of sacrifices in the process. Sacrifices such as our digestive system and its lack of effectiveness as well as being susceptive to disorders such as anxiety because of factors unknown as well as known.

    Goldberg, J., MD. (2016, April 23). Anxiety. Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/causes-anxiety
    Kalat, J. W. (2014). Biological psychology. Boston, MA: Cengage.


    May 1, 2016 at 8:46 pm

    • Wow, that was very thorough! I especially appreciated the references and the link to your post. Thanks for taking the time to share all that.


      May 2, 2016 at 11:17 am

  2. Johnny Zina

    Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change throughout life. The human brain has the ability to reorganize itself and form new connections between brain cells and neurons. Most machines that you see are built, and then they are done, save for the need of occasional repair. The brain is not like the rest of the body, because it changes structurally throughout life (Kalat 2014). People with anxiety are often experiencing heightened emotions, which in turn creates new connections in the brain, due to the plastic nature of it. Once changes occur, and an association is made between a specific emotion and anxiety, a person can feel anxiety any time they feel that emotion, even if they are not showing symptoms of anxiety beforehand, or in that specific situation. This can be very debilitating for the person when it comes to social functioning.

    Researchers are not sure specifically what causes anxiety. It may be caused by a mental condition, a physical condition, drugs, or any combination of these. However, they do know that the amygdala has heightened activity in individuals who have it. As far as differences in regions of the brain go, I found it very interesting that the main differences were found in the amygdala and sensory regions. It is known that there is a difference in the level of activity present, but perhaps a physiological difference in these regions is also present. Research has shown that adolescent humans have greater hippocampus volume than older humans (Kalat 2014). Perhaps this is the same for the amygdala, which is the region related to fear and anxiety. This could also be the reason why many individuals do not experience heightened feelings of anxiety until they are well into their teenage years.

    Kalat, J. W. (2014). Biological psychology. Boston, MA: Cengage.


    May 1, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    • That’s a really good question, I wish I could find the answer. I would think that the amygdala probably changes with age like the hippocampus, but that’s just a guess and who knows how it may or may not effect personality. Anyway those are some great questions you raised so hopefully they can be answered soon.


      May 2, 2016 at 11:23 am

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