Neuroimaging studies of attention and the processing of emotion-laden stimuli

Prog Brain Res. 2004;144:171-82. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(03)14412-3.


Because the processing capacity of the visual system is limited, selective attention to one part of the visual field comes at the cost of neglecting other parts. In this paper, we review evidence from single-cell studies in monkeys and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in humans for neural competition and how competition is biased by attention. We suggest that, at the neural level, an important consequence of attention is to enhance the influence of behaviorally relevant stimuli at the expense of irrelevant ones, providing a mechanism for the filtering of distracting information in cluttered visual scenes. Psychophysical evidence suggests that processing outside the focus of attention is attenuated and may be even eliminated under some conditions. A major exception to the critical role of attention may be in the neural processing of emotion-laden stimuli, which are reported to be processed automatically, namely, without attention. Contrary to this prevailing view, in a recent study we found that all brain regions responding differentially to faces with emotional content, including the amygdala, did so only when sufficient resources were available to process those faces. After reviewing our findings, we discuss their implications, in particular (1) how emotional stimuli can bias competition for processing resources; (2) the source of the biasing signal for emotional stimuli; (3) how visual information reaches the amygdala; and finally (4) the relationship between attention and awareness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Mental Processes / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Visual Perception / physiology*