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Why We Fear the Future

People who struggle to deal with uncertainty may in fact may have an unusually large striatum.

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Do you find it difficult to cope with an uncertain future? Researchers are studying a specific area of the brain, and how it correlates to anxiety and anxiety disorders.

A study recently published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion suggests that people who struggle with the ambiguity of future threats may have an enlarged striatum, a part of the brain that has previously been associated with general anxiety disorder. The striatum is primarily known for its role in motor function, and some studies on animals have also suggested that it plays a role in our perception of how we’ll receive and respond to rewards.

For the study, 61 students filled out a survey that looked at their ability to tolerate the uncertainly of future negative events. Then they underwent MRIs of their brains. Together with his team, researcher Justin Kim, Ph.D., in the Dartmouth College Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, looked at the MRIs and compared them with the surveys, and found that people with larger striatums tending to have more intolerance of uncertainty.

“What surprised us was that it was only the striatum and not other parts of the brain we examined,” wrote Kim. “Our findings demonstrate that the relationship between increased striatal volumes and intolerance of uncertainty can be observed in healthy individuals," he wrote.

“Having a relatively enlarged volume of the striatum may be associated with how intolerant you are when facing an uncertain future, but it does not mean you have OCD or generalized anxiety disorder.” (Or, he notes, that you’ll develop it in the future.)

However, the findings may be important as starting points for research into those disorders. “Uncertainty and ambiguity of potential future threats are central to understanding the generation of anxiety and anxiety disorders,” according to Kim.


Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers. 


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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