Washington, Apr 4 : Everybody gets the odd case of butterflies in the stomach - a state known as anxiety. Dwelling on its negative side can lead to chronic stress and anxiety disorders and phobias, but evolutionarily speaking, anxiety holds some functional value, says a new study.
According to the study, a healthy amount of anxiety grants some survival value, while too much may lead to excessive worry and clinical conditions.
A team of psychologists at Stanford University has identified a region of the brain, the anterior insula, which plays a key role in predicting harm and also learning to avoid it.
In the new study, Gregory Samanez-Larkin and colleagues scanned the brains of healthy adults while they anticipated losing money.
Adults with greater activation of their insula while anticipating a financial loss were better at learning to avoid financial losses in a separate game several months later.
Conversely, participants with low levels of insula activation had a harder time learning to avoid losses and lost more money in the game as a result.
For these subjects, higher levels of insula activation helped them to learn to avoid losses months later. However, researchers have found that excessive insula activation might prove problematic.
Previous research has shown that people who are chronically fearful and anxious have abnormal patterns of insula activation. So, while people with excessive insula activity are at risk for psychological disorders like anxiety and phobias, higher levels of insula activation in the normal range may allow people to avoid potentially harmful situations.
The findings of the study may help explain why anxious traits persist in humanity's genetic endowment, even as environmental threats vary over the ages.
The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.