Processing of emotional distraction is both automatic and modulated by attention: evidence from an event-related fMRI investigation

J Cogn Neurosci. 2012 May;24(5):1233-52. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00206. Epub 2012 Feb 14.


Traditionally, emotional stimuli have been thought to be automatically processed via a bottom-up automatic "capture of attention" mechanism. Recently, this view has been challenged by evidence that emotion processing depends on the availability of attentional resources. Although these two views are not mutually exclusive, direct evidence reconciling them is lacking. One limitation of previous investigations supporting the traditional or competing views is that they have not systematically investigated the impact of emotional charge of task-irrelevant distraction in conjunction with manipulations of attentional demands. Using event-related fMRI, we investigated the nature of emotion-cognition interactions in a perceptual discrimination task with emotional distraction by manipulating both the emotional charge of the distracting information and the demands of the main task. Our findings show that emotion processing is both automatic and modulated by attention, but emotion and attention were only found to interact when finer assessments of emotional charge (comparison of most vs. least emotional conditions) were considered along with an effective manipulation of processing load (high vs. low). The study also identified brain regions reflecting the detrimental impact of emotional distraction on performance as well as regions involved in coping with such distraction. Activity in the dorsomedial pFC and ventrolateral pFC was linked to a detrimental impact of emotional distraction, whereas the dorsal ACC and lateral occipital cortex were involved in helping with emotional distraction. These findings demonstrate that task-irrelevant emotion processing is subjective to both the emotional content of distraction and the level of attentional demand.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affective Symptoms / physiopathology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / blood supply*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Oxygen
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen