Access of emotional information to visual awareness in patients with major depressive disorder

Psychol Med. 2011 Aug;41(8):1615-24. doi: 10.1017/S0033291710002540. Epub 2011 Jan 5.


Background: According to cognitive theories of depression, negative biases affect most cognitive processes including perception. Such depressive perception may result not only from biased cognitive appraisal but also from automatic processing biases that influence the access of sensory information to awareness.

Method: Twenty patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) and 20 healthy control participants underwent behavioural testing with a variant of binocular rivalry, continuous flash suppression (CFS), to investigate the potency of emotional visual stimuli to gain access to awareness. While a neutral, fearful, happy or sad emotional face was presented to one eye, high-contrast dynamic patterns were presented to the other eye, resulting in initial suppression of the face from awareness. Participants indicated the location of the face with a key press as soon as it became visible. The modulation of suppression time by emotional expression was taken as an index of unconscious emotion processing.

Results: We found a significant difference in the emotional modulation of suppression time between MDD patients and controls. This difference was due to relatively shorter suppression of sad faces and, to a lesser degree, to longer suppression of happy faces in MDD. Suppression time modulation by sad expression correlated with change in self-reported severity of depression after 4 weeks.

Conclusions: Our finding of preferential access to awareness for mood-congruent stimuli supports the notion that depressive perception may be related to altered sensory information processing even at automatic processing stages. Such perceptual biases towards mood-congruent information may reinforce depressed mood and contribute to negative cognitive biases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Awareness*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / psychology*
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Reaction Time
  • Unconscious, Psychology
  • Visual Perception