If I say, “Can’t walk in a straight line,” you might think “DUI?” Fair enough. But, courtesy of a new psych study, here’s another hasty conclusion to form about people who veer to the side — in this case, the left side: They’re anxious.
Psychologists at the University of Kent performed a simple experiment to determine that anxious people literally lean left, and published their findings in the February issue of Cognition. For the study, blindfolded participants repeatedly attempted to walk across a room in a straight line. The more anxious participants, based on personality surveys, tended to veer left, which study authors say suggests greater activity in the right side of the brain (compared to the left).
As we learned in middle school biology, each brain hemisphere controls the muscles on the opposite side of the body. (Bat your right eyelash, thank your left brain.) From there, the cross-hemispheric relationship gets complicated. While the two sides work together, and even have some redundancies, they're also asymmetrical. The left takes the lead, for example, on language, logic and declarative memory, whereas the right has dibs on spatial skills, sound processing and visual recognition. In terms of personality traits, which fuse cognitive, emotional and behavioral functions, it gets harder to make straightforward connections between characteristics and sides of the brain.
In the case of the current study, researchers were exploring the relationship between lateral spatial bias (tending to walk right or left) and two traits related to motivation. First, there’s behavioral approach, which concerns goal-oriented behavior. Strivers with their eyes on the prize would score well here. The second is inhibition (aka anxiety). People who are quick to perceive negative threats (gray skies ahead = the apocalypse is nigh!) display inhibition.
Ladder-climbers to the right
Previous neuroscience and cognition research had already linked disproportionately high left-brain activity and right lateral bias with goal-oriented behavior. In other words, ladder-climbers think with the left, move to the right.
It’s not clear, however, when the link shows up. Some believe that these striving individuals start to bend right in high-pressure situations, such as a championship soccer game. Essentially, there’s some link between moving right, left frontal-lobe activity and the pursuit of self-gain, but that link may only appear sometimes, and we don’t know when.
Worrywarts to the…?
Neuroscience research also points to a connection between anxiety and right-hemisphere activity. But support for the third part of the triangle — left lateral bias — isn’t so strong. Going into this study, authors declared “no conclusive evidence” that inhibition alone predicts moving left.
This research, scientists believe, is the first time evidence supports the missing link, as the connection between being goal-oriented and rightward movement did not show up when people also scored high on anxiety. The more anxious the participant, the more they headed left.
While the connection may seem scientifically interesting but practically irrelevant, understanding the brain basis of these motivational traits helps clarify a condition called unilateral neglect, in which people struggle with spatial awareness. Treating anxiety, it seems, could help treat universal neglect, too.