Worry too much? You might just be really smart. According to new research, worrying may have evolved along with high intelligence as a beneficial trait in humans.
"While excessive worry is generally seen as a negative trait and high intelligence as a positive one, worry may cause our species to avoid dangerous situations, regardless of how remote a possibility they may be," says researcher Jeremy Coplan, professor of psychiatry at Brooklyn's SUNY Downstate Medical Center. "In essence, worry may make people 'take no chances,' and such people may have higher survival rates. Thus, like intelligence, worry may confer a benefit upon the species."
In a small study published in the journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience, 26 patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, and 18 volunteers in good mental health were examined. High levels of worry among the anxiety-plagued patients were linked to greater intelligence.
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But, before chalking up all of your worries to your superior intellect, you should know that among the healthy people in the study's control group, the results were reversed. In this group, those who worried the most tended to have lower IQs.
So, according to this research, intelligence is high among the overly anxious, but lower among those who are just moderately anxious. In the past, researchers have explained that second link by theorizing that people with lower intelligence might be less successful and thus experience more worries in their lives.
But worry is almost always seen as a bad thing. These new findings, on the other hand, point out that maybe anxiety isn't merely a negative response, but could be a helpful trait.
"If high anxiety is maladaptive," the researchers write, "then it should not correlate positively with intelligence, the most adaptive trait for humans."
Besides measuring their subjects IQ levels, and collecting their responses to the Penn State Worry Questionnaire, the scientists also took scans of their brains (using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging, or H-MRSI). They found that high intelligence and worry were both tied to a reduction in the nutrient choline in the brain's subcortical white matter.
"One region of the brain — the white matter — that has contributed to the evolutionary success of humans, may also be implicated in anxiety disorders," they write in the study.
If this new association with high intelligence isn't enough to calm the nerves of those overly anxious types out there — maybe the link discovered between anxiety and a heightened sense of smell will do the trick?
If it doesn't help you become a neurosurgeon, your anxiety might just help you to pick out the best-smelling match at one of those pheromone parties for singles that have been cropping up recently.
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