Maybe a little anxiety couldn't hurt

Maybe a little anxiety couldn't hurt
Rita Rubin / USA Today (US)

As I've mentioned before, I come from a long line of worriers. So I was pleased to get a press release about a new study that suggested a little fretting might be a good thing. I felt compelled to call Gregory Samanez-Larkin, the Stanford psychology grad student who's the study's lead author, although I was a little anxious about what he might have to say.

Samanez-Larkin's research team asked 23 volunteers to play a computer game involving real money while undergoing functional MRI scans. With functional MRI, scientists can observe brain activity while the brain's owner is performing a task. All the volunteers were healthy and not taking any psychiatric drugs.

Here's how the game worked: A circle or a square would flash on the screen with a message about how the player could win or lose 50 cents or 5 dollars. Then a flashing star would appear and, if the player pressed it quickly enough, he or she would either win money or not lose it.

The researchers were most interested in the few seconds between the message about how much money was at stake and the flashing star. "When people are thinking about losing money, you see activation in a bunch of regions, but one of them is the insula," Samanez-Larkin says. Previous research has linked an extremely active insula, buried deep in the brain, to anxiety, neuroticism and the like.

Nearly a year later, the volunteers returned to the lab to play another computer game, sans brain scans. Basically, they had to figure out the odds of two abstract shapes paying out or taking away a dollar or neither. Samanez-Larkin compares it to sitting in front of two slot machines and trying to figure out which one is more likely to pay off. It turns out that the people who had the most insular activity in those key few seconds when they played the first game--in other words, the people who perhaps were most anxious about losing money--did better than the others on the second game.

Hmmm, maybe I ought to try my luck on the slots in Atlantic City...