Emotional Content Overrides Spatial Attention


Spatial attention is our capacity to attend to or ignore particular regions of our spatial environment. However, some classes of stimuli may be able to override our efforts to ignore them. Here we assessed the relationship between involuntary attentional capture with emotional images and spatial attention at early stages of perceptual processing. Multiple scenes of unpleasant and neutral content were displayed in rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) streams that elicited the steady-state visual evoked potential (SSVEP), a neural marker of selective attention at early visual areas. In a spatial cueing task, participants were cued to covertly attend to RSVP streams presented at 4 and 6 Hz presentation rates in the left and right visual hemifields. The task was to detect square targets occasionally displayed within the image streams, responding only to those appearing on the cued side. The RSVP streams were always neutral pictures in one visual hemifield but would unpredictably switch from neutral to aversive content in the other visual hemifield. We found that SSVEP amplitude was consistently modulated by a change in emotional valence of image streams, regardless of whether the change in content occurred in the attended or unattended spatial location, reflecting an automatic sensory amplification for affective stimuli. The present data provide further evidence in support that emotional images can attract visual processing resources independently of spatial attention allocation, and are consistent with sustained sensory facilitation of early visual areas through re-entrant feedback projections from higher-order cortical areas involved in the extraction of affective information.

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