Timing the fearful brain: unspecific hypervigilance and spatial attention in early visual perception

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Abstract

Numerous studies suggest that anxious individuals are more hypervigilant to threat in their environment than nonanxious individuals. In the present event-related potential (ERP) study, we sought to investigate the extent to which afferent cortical processes, as indexed by the earliest visual component C1, are biased in observers high in fear of specific objects. In a visual search paradigm, ERPs were measured while spider-fearful participants and controls searched for discrepant objects (e.g. spiders, butterflies, flowers) in visual arrays. Results showed enhanced C1 amplitudes in response to spatially directed target stimuli in spider-fearful participants only. Furthermore, enhanced C1 amplitudes were observed in response to all discrepant targets and distractors in spider-fearful compared with non-anxious participants, irrespective of fearful and non-fearful target contents. This pattern of results is in line with theoretical notions of heightened sensory sensitivity (hypervigilance) to external stimuli in high-fearful individuals. Specifically, the findings suggest that fear facilitates afferent cortical processing in the human visual cortex in a non-specific and temporally sustained fashion, when observers search for potential threat cues.

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