The musician Bobby McFerrin once sang, "Don't worry, be happy." But a recent paper published in Psychology Review, which points to evidence that the brain uses two systems - systematic and heuristic - to process information, may create a new lyric: "Don't worry, be heuristic."
Though the lyrics may not be catchy, for worriers, the findings could help. A team from the University of Sussex in the UK, led by Dr. Suzanne Dash, reviewed a large body of recent research that supports the two-system method in the brain for making decisions.
The team notes that systematic processing involves assessing all the available information before making a conclusion, whereas heuristic processing involves a quick, "intuitive response," which is the kind of processing we use when faced with an unexpected threat.
According to Dr. Dash, worrying activates the left frontal lobe, which is the same area of the brain used in systematic processing. In other words, worriers tend to activate the left, analytical part of the brain when making decisions rather than the right, instinctive part of the brain.
Dr. Dash adds:
"Sometimes it is appropriate to give lots of careful thought to what might happen in an uncertain situation, such as buying a house. However, worriers give effortful, deliberative thought to issues that other people would deem to be less threatening, such as what will happen if they forget something or are not completely prepared for a meeting."
The researchers point to certain traits that worriers can posses, which have been shown to activate systematic processing. These include:
- Endorsing perfectionism
- Finding uncertainty unpleasant
- Needing to gather more evidence before making decisions
- Having a strong desire for control
- Being in a negative mood
- Feeling more responsible and accountable.
On a positive note, Dr. Dash says her team's findings could be helpful in identifying areas that chronic worriers can address through therapy.
She notes that being aware that there are two systems of information processing could allow worriers to "think about when it is appropriate to use detailed effortful processing and when it is not appropriate."
Dr. Dash continues:
"And within cognitive-behavioural therapy, it is possible to support individuals to manage unhelpful thoughts, such as feeling excessively responsible for a situation or needing to be in control."
A recent study revealed that an immune response to stress has an effect on mood.