Here Comes Trouble: Prestimulus Brain Activity Predicts Enhanced Perception of Threat

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Research on the perceptual prioritization of threatening stimuli has focused primarily on the physical characteristics and evolutionary salience of these stimuli. However, perceptual decision-making is strongly influenced by prestimulus factors such as goals, expectations, and prior knowledge. Using both event-related potentials and functional magnetic resonance imaging, we test the hypothesis that prior threat-related information and related increases in prestimulus brain activity play a key role in subsequent threat-related perceptual decision-making. After viewing threatening and neutral cues, participants detected perceptually degraded threatening and neutral faces presented at individually predetermined perceptual thresholds in a perceptual decision-making task. Compared with neutral cues, threat cues resulted in (1) improved perceptual sensitivity and faster detection of target stimuli; (2) increased late positive potential (LPP) and superior temporal sulcus (STS) activity, both of which are measures of emotional face processing; and (3) increased amygdala activity for subsequently presented threatening versus and neutral faces. Importantly, threat cue-related LPP and STS activity predicted subsequent improvement in the speed and precision of perceptual decisions specifically for threatening faces. Present findings establish the importance of top-down factors and prestimulus neural processing in understanding how the perceptual system prioritizes threatening information.

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