Threat prompts defensive brain responses independently of attentional control

Cereb Cortex. 2012 Feb;22(2):274-85. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhr060. Epub 2011 Jun 10.


Negative emotional signals are known to influence task performance, but so far, investigations have focused on how emotion interacts with perceptual processes by mobilizing attentional resources. The attention-independent effects of negative emotional signals are less well understood. Here, we show that threat signals trigger defensive responses independently of what observers pay attention to. Participants were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging while watching short video clips of threatening actions and performed either color or emotion judgments. Seeing threatening actions interfered with performance in both tasks. Amygdala activation reflected both stimulus and task conditions. In contrast, threat stimuli prompted a constant activity in a network underlying reflexive defensive behavior (periaqueductal gray, hypothalamus, and premotor cortex). Threat stimuli also disrupted ongoing behavior and provoked motor conflict in prefrontal regions during both tasks. The present results are consistent with the view that emotions trigger adaptive action tendencies independently of task settings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen