If you are what some might describe as a worry wart or a nervous nelly, you may be doing something unconsciously, besides biting your fingernails. A recent study published in the scientific journal Cognition, found a tendency for anxious people to lean left. Most people are already well-aware that a mental state of stress can have a ton of influence on the functioning of your body. Anxiety can produce many side effects from headaches to high blood pressure to insomnia. If you've ever had a big presentation or performance, you know the feeling. Now there is proof that anxiety can even change the direction you walk.
Research performed at the School of Psychology at the University of Kent found that when trying to walk in a straight line, on average, the less inhibited veered right and the anxious veered to the left. Researchers suggested that this leftward bias is caused by the anxious people having more activity going on in the right hemisphere of their brain. Hence for the first time connecting changes in different motivational systems to activity on different sides of the brain.
Dr. Mario Weick, an author of the study, explained to The Telegraph, “People experiencing anxiety and inhibition have more activity in the right side of the brain, causing them to walk in a leftward trajectory." Though being stressed is never good for you health-wise, veering towards the left isn't necessarily a bad thing — just think of the now infamous left shark from 2015's Super Bowl halftime show!
To test this phenomenon, 80 students were asked to fill out surveys measuring behavioral avoidance and anxiety levels. The questionnaires specifically examined their behavioral approach system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS). Activation of BAS is associated with positive and goal-oriented behavior, while BIS is linked to anxiety, and increased sensitivity and fearfulness. Questions asked to rate statements differing levels of true and false, for example "I feel worried when I think I have done poorly at something important."
To find out how these affected spatial attention, each individual was then blindfolded and asked to do their best to walk in a straight line towards a mark on the floor, 20 feet away. They had previously seen location of the target before being blind-folded. The participants traversed the room 20 times, and their data was captured with motion tracking to measure the variations in their movement. After comparing the trajectory results with the questionnaires, those showing more inhibition veered left while trying to walk straight, and those with higher BAS leaned right. However, the study was only performed on right-handed students, so if you are an anxious lefty, these results may not apply to you.
What are the consequences of this spatial bias in our everyday lives? Thankfully, these results do not mean that if you are suffering from anxiety you're gonna walk into a manhole or towards traffic if it's on your left. However, these predilections may make a difference of winning or losing when it comes to sports. A 2011 study found that when under pressure, soccer goalies tend to dive to the right. This is thought to come from the human predisposition to move towards the right when approaching something they deeply desire.
So next time you are in a tense soccer shootout, your body could be literally pulling you in two directions at once!