Personality traits predict brain activation and connectivity when witnessing a violent conflict

  • Stock J
  • Hortensius R
  • Sinke C
 et al. 
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Abstract

As observers we excel in decoding the emotional signals telling us that a social interaction is turning violent. The neural substrate and its modulation by personality traits remain ill understood. We performed an fMRI experiment in which participants watched videos displaying a violent conflict between two people. Observers' attention was directed to either the aggressor or the victim. Focusing on the aggressor (vs. focusing on the victim) activated the superior temporal sulcus (STS), extra-striate body area (EBA), occipital poles and centro-medial amygdala (CMA). Stronger instantaneous connectivity occurred between these and the EBA, insula, and the red nucleus. When focusing on the victim, basolateral amygdala (BLA) activation was related to trait empathy and showed increased connectivity with the insula and red nucleus. STS activation was associated with trait aggression and increased connectivity with the hypothalamus. The findings reveal that focusing on the aggressor of a violent conflict triggers more activation in categorical (EBA) and emotion (CMA, STS) areas. This is associated with increased instantaneous connectivity among emotion areas (CMA-insula) and between categorical and emotion (EBA-STS) areas. When the focus is on the victim, personality traits (aggression/empathy) modulate activity in emotion areas (respectively STS and postcentral gyrus/ BLA), along with connectivity in the emotional diencephalon (hypothalamus) and early visual areas (occipital pole). Social interactions are very much a part of our daily life, whether or not we are actively involved in them. When observing interactions from a third person perspective we are adept at recognizing the relational 1 and emotional 2 dynamics at stake in dyadic interactions. There is evidence that observers selectively pro-cess emotion-cues contained in a complex scene 3–5 , but the matter is more complicated when observing an interaction between two people, as the focus of attention may be drawn to either of the two people involved. A sensible assumption is that the actual focus of attention influences eyewitness reports 6 . The present study examined this selective attention issue of the observer, but not about identifying a perpe-trator. We presented realistic video clips of aggressive two-person interactions in which one agent was clearly the aggressor and the other was the victim. The video clips were identical across conditions, but the focus of attention (on aggressor or on victim) was manipulated. Participants performed a dot color discrimination task unrelated to the content of the videos but forcing them to attend to the location of either the aggressor or the victim. The use of an orthogonal task is useful because it allows one to investigate brain responses that are not influenced by the task but by the underlying differences of the variables of interest.

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