Emotional context influences access of visual stimuli to anxious individuals' awareness

Consciousness and Cognition 21 (2):900-914 (2012)
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Abstract

Anxiety has been associated with enhanced unconscious processing of threat and attentional biases towards threat. Here, we focused on the phenomenology of perception in anxiety and examined whether threat-related material more readily enters anxious than non-anxious individuals’ awareness. In six experiments, we compared the stimulus exposures required for each anxiety group to become objectively or subjectively aware of masked facial stimuli varying in emotional expression. Crucially, target emotion was task irrelevant. We found that high trait-anxiety individuals required less sensory evidence to become aware of the face targets. This anxiety-based difference was observed for fearful faces in all experiments, but with non-threat faces, it emerged only when these were presented among threatening faces. Our findings suggest a prominent role for affective context in high-anxiety individuals’ conscious perception of visual stimuli. Possible mechanisms underlying the influence of context in lowering awareness thresholds in anxious individuals are discussed

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