How Anxiety Warps Perception

September 29, 2016

As your thoughts run uncontrollably, your heartbeat starts to race and your breathing becomes heavy. Uneasiness is followed by fear, and then without warning, panic begins to set in. Suddenly you feel overwhelmed and overstimulated.

If you periodically experience these symptoms, know that you’re in good company. Actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, musicians such as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Taylor Swift, artists and writers like Vincent Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson, all struggled with crippling bouts of anxiety.

We all know that anxiety affects our emotional state and makes interacting with the world difficult, but what may be less obvious is how it changes what we focus our attention on throughout the day. By biasing attention, anxiety alters what we are conscious of, and in turn, the way we experience reality. This can have profound consequences. Anxiety’s effects on attention may shape worldviews and belief systems in specific and predictable ways. It can even affect our politics without us knowing.

To protect against the reality-distorting effects of anxiety, we must first understand how attention works and the ways in which it can be influenced.

To use the metaphor inspired by the brilliantly forward-thinking 19th Century American psychologist, William James, our visual attention system works a lot like a spotlight that scans the world around us.

This ‘attentional spotlight’ represents the finite region of space that is occupied by our focus of attention at any given moment. What falls inside the spotlight is consciously processed while that which is outside is not. By moving our eyes around a visual scene, we can shine our spotlight on any area of the environment we want to inspect in detail. In fact, in-depth processing of an object, a string of text, or a location can’t be carried out unless it is first brought inside the spotlight of attention.

We can appreciate what this means by considering what our attention is doing when we read a book on a crowded train. Our eyes move across the page from left to right, line-by-line, dragging our attentional spotlight from word to word. While the word we are focusing our attention on is sharp and clear to our perception, words on the page that lie outside our attentional spotlight appear blurry and are largely indecipherable.

We have a localized spotlight of attention because taking in all the visual information from the environment at once would overwhelm the brain, which is a system with limited resources, much like a computer. The spotlight allows your mind to focus only on what’s important while ignoring the irrelevant. This makes reality comprehensible.

While most of the time we intentionally choose what to focus our spotlight of attention on, it’s not always under voluntary control, and it doesn’t treat everything in the environment equally. Certain things, like a bright flash of light or a sudden large movement in an unexpected area, automatically capture the focus of the spotlight, yanking attention to the location where they appear.

Having your attention immediately snatched from you might seem like an inconvenience, but this process happens for a very good reason. These involuntary attention shifts instantly alert us of something in the environment that may be crucial to survival. To pre-modern humans, an automatic attention shift could have signaled a meaty dinner running by, or if one was less lucky, a threat lurking in the periphery, like a predator or a dangerous enemy.

Thanks to evolution, our visual attention system automatically responds to a wide variety of forms of threat. Snakes, spiders, angry and fearful faces, threatening postures, and objects shaped like weapons, all have the power to capture our attentional spotlight. We can say that visual attention is “biased” toward threat in the interest of self-preservation.

While this function helps us survive, anxiety causes this quick and simple threat detection system to become hypersensitive, changing the behavior of the attentional spotlight in a way that does harm. Specifically, some control over the spotlight is lost as it becomes too easily grabbed by anything that could potentially be perceived as threatening, whether or not it actually is. And when one is only focused on threat, negative information consumes one’s consciousness.

To understand exactly how anxiety can change one’s entire perception of the world just by biasing attention, consider what it is like for a highly anxious person to ride the train in a crowded metropolitan area.

Imagine standing on a busy subway platform, peering into the crowd of people waiting alongside you. Your attentional spotlight is automatically dragged towards the negative facial expressions while the positive ones are ignored. As a result, everyone seems to be a little upset, and suddenly, things just seem gloomier overall.

On the train ride home, after all the stops have passed but yours, a large man wearing a hoodie sitting near you abruptly reaches into his jacket pocket, which captures your attention as if he was reaching for a weapon. Luckily it was just a cell phone, but it causes you to think about how you could have not been so lucky. The whole experience strengthens your perception of the subway as a dangerous place full of questionable characters and agitated people.

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