People with anxiety disorders such as OCD know that nothing can be more paralyzing than having too many options. Go to a store to buy a sweater, find four that you like and the odds are pretty good you’ll stare and stare…and buy nothing at all. Now there’s an explanation for what’s going on: the neurons in your ventrolateral prefrontal cortex won’t shut up.
In a study led by Yuko Munakata, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, investigators presented subjects with a random noun and asked them to pair a verb with it. In choice situations like this, brain cells in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex are designed to consider a wide range of options—essentially conducting a high-speed argument among themselves. The debate would go on forever, except chemical inhibitors soon silence things, allowing only one option to prevail.
The subjects in Munakata’s study all performed in the average range on the word test—choosing their verb no faster or no slower than predicted. The investigators then administered them a drug called midazolam, which briefly increases neural inhibition—essentially making the arguing neurons pipe down sooner. The drug did its job—and the subjects chose a suitable verb faster than they had before.
The implications of the work are uncertain for now, and a lot more research would have to be done before people suffering from clinical anxiety—whose lives can sometimes be undone by an inability to make decisions—could be treated with a midazolam-type drug. Knowing just how the brain gets snagged, however, is an important step toward freeing it up.