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