The Effects of Fear States from Passive and Active Threats on Breadth of Attention

Issue: 
2019
Institution: 
Intercollege Program in Neuroscience; Department of Psychology; Department of Biological Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

The post-encounter and circa-strike fear states define two of the neurological states that can cause changes in cognition, specifically changes in breadth of attention, when in the presence of a threat. Post-encounter represents the neurological and physiological changes that are experienced after the initial detection of a potential threat and aligns with higher activity in forebrain regions including the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). Conversely, circa-strike represents the neurological and physiological changes experienced upon interaction with an immediate threat, and results in higher activity in the midbrain and the mid-dorsal ACC, as well as inhibited activity in the sgACC, amygdala, and hippocampus. While certain studies have shown that fear narrows attention, allowing for a smaller range of focus, other studies have suggested the opposite: that fear allows for widened attention and a broader range of focus. We sought to inform this debate by using maze simulations in order to elicit post-encounter and circa-strike fear in subjects. A within-subjects experiment was used in which human participants (N=30) were tasked with navigating throughout 2-dimensional simulated mazes, designed as the game Pac-Man®. Participants were asked to respond to visual stimuli (central and peripheral) within three different maze conditions: a control maze (no threats were present), a passive threat maze (threats were programmed to navigate randomly throughout the maze), and an active threat maze (threats were programmed to constantly pursue participant throughout maze). Results of the study revealed a lower accuracy when responding to peripheral vs central stimuli during the active threat maze, suggesting a narrowed breadth of attention. In addition, there was higher accuracy when responding to peripheral stimuli vs central stimuli during the passive threat maze, suggesting a broadened breadth of attention. These findings support the prediction that post-encounter and circa-strike fear have different effects on attention.

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