This is the first time that specific regions of the brain have been identified to be involved in the phenomenon. The human brain is able to detect social threats in these regions in a fast, automatic fashion, within just 200 milliseconds, researchers said.

Scientists discovered that anxious individuals detect threat in a different region of the brain from people who are more laid-back.

It was previously thought that anxiety could lead to oversensitivity to threat signals. However, the new study shows that the difference has a useful purpose. Anxious people process threats using regions of the brain responsible for action.

Meanwhile, 'low anxious' people process them in sensory circuits, responsible for face recognition. Facial displays of emotion can be ambiguous but the researchers managed to identify what it is that makes a person particularly threatening.

They found that the direction a person is looking in is key to enhancing our sensitivity to their emotions. Anger paired with a direct gaze produces a response in the brain in only 200 milliseconds, faster than if the angry person is looking elsewhere.

Similarly, if a person displays fear and looks in a particular direction you will detect this more rapidly than positive emotions. Such quick reactions could have served an adaptive purpose for survival.

The study was published in the journal eLife.

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