Distracted by danger: Temporal and spatial dynamics of visual selection in the presence of threat.
Mulckhuyse M., Dalmaijer ES.
Threatening stimuli are known to influence attentional and visual processes in order to prioritize selection. For example, previous research showed faster detection of threatening relative to nonthreatening stimuli. This has led to the proposal that threatening stimuli are prioritized automatically via a rapid subcortical route. However, in most studies, the threatening stimulus is always to some extent task relevant. Therefore, it is still unclear if threatening stimuli are automatically prioritized by the visual system. We used the additional singleton paradigm with task-irrelevant fear-conditioned distractors (CS+ and CS-) and indexed the time course of eye movement behavior. The results demonstrate automatic prioritization of threat. First, mean latency of saccades directed to the neutral target was increased in the presence of a threatening (CS+) relative to a nonthreatening distractor (CS-), indicating exogenous attentional capture and delayed disengagement of covert attention. Second, more error saccades were directed to the threatening than to the nonthreatening distractor, indicating a modulation of automatically driven saccades. Nevertheless, cumulative distributions of the saccade latencies showed no modulation of threat for the fastest goal-driven saccades, and threat did not affect the latency of the error saccades to the distractors. Together these results suggest that threatening stimuli are automatically prioritized in attentional and visual selection but not via faster processing. Rather, we suggest that prioritization results from an enhanced representation of the threatening stimulus in the oculomotor system, which drives attentional and visual selection. The current findings are interpreted in terms of a neurobiological model of saccade programming.