Autonomic arousal and attentional orienting to visual threat are predicted by awareness

  • Hedger N
  • Adams W
  • Garner M
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The rapid detection and evaluation of threat is of fundamental importance for survival. Theories suggest that this evolutionary pressure has driven functional adaptations in a specialized visual pathway that evaluates threat independently of conscious awareness. This is supported by evidence that threat-relevant stimuli rendered invisible by backward masking can induce physiological fear responses and modulate spatial attention. The validity of these findings has since been questioned by research using stringent, objective measures of awareness. Here, we use a modified continuous flash suppression paradigm to ask whether threatening images induce adaptive changes in autonomic arousal, attention, or perception when presented outside of awareness. In trials where stimuli broke suppression to become visible, threatening stimuli induced a significantly larger skin conductance response than nonthreatening stimuli and attracted spatial attention over scrambled images. However, these effects were eliminated in trials where observers were unaware of the stimuli. In addition, concurrent behavioral data provided no evidence that threat- ening images gained prioritized access to awareness. Taken together, our data suggest that the evaluation and spatial detection of visual threat are predicted by awareness.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Attention
  • Awareness
  • Emotion
  • Threat
  • Vision

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