Freezing is an evolutionarily preserved defensive behavior, characterized by immobility and heart rate deceleration, which is thought to promote visual perception. Rapid perceptual assessment of threat is crucial in life-threatening situations; for example, when policemen need to make split-second decisions about the use of deadly force. Here, we hypothesized that freezing is specifically associated with better perception of rapidly processed coarse, low-spatial frequency (LSF) features. We used a visual discrimination task in which participants determined the orientation of LSF and high-spatial frequency (HSF) gratings under threat of shock and safe conditions. As predicted, threat anticipation improved perception of LSF at the expense of HSF gratings. Crucially, stronger decrease in heart rate, a parasympathetic physiological index of freezing, was linked to better perception of LSF. These results provide empirical evidence for the comobilization of physiological and perceptual processes, which may play an important role in decision making under acute stress.
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