Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Do Tests of Executive Functioning Predict Ability to Downregulate Emotions Spontaneously and When Instructed to Suppress?

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Do Tests of Executive Functioning Predict Ability to Downregulate Emotions Spontaneously and When Instructed to Suppress?

Article excerpt

Behavioral regulation is a hallmark feature of executive functioning (EF). The present study investigated whether commonly used neuropsychological test measures of EF (i.e., working memory, Stroop, trail making, and verbal fluency) were related to ability to downregulate emotion both spontaneously and when instructed to suppress emotional expressions. To ensure a wide range of EF, 24 frontotemporal lobar degeneration patients, 7 Alzheimer's patients, and 17 neurologically normal controls participated. Participants were exposed to an acoustic startle stimulus (single aversive noise burst) under three conditions: (1) unwarned, (2) warned with no instructions (to measure spontaneous emotion downregulation), and (3) warned with instructions to suppress (to measure instructed emotion downregulation). Results indicated that higher verbal fluency scores were related to greater emotion regulation (operationalized as reduction in body movement and emotional facial behavior when warned of the impending startle) in both regulation conditions. No relationships were found between emotion regulation in these conditions and the other EF measures. We conclude that, of four commonly used measures of EF, verbal fluency best indexes the complex processes of monitoring, evaluation, and control necessary for successful emotion regulation, both spontaneously and following instructions to suppress.

The ability to monitor and modify ongoing behavior is essential to many cognitive and emotional functions. A set of psychological processes collectively called executive functioning (EF) has been associated with coordinating perceptual and motor processes in the service of behavioral goals (Lezak, Howieson, Loring, Hannay, & Fischer, 2004; Norman & Shallice, 1986; Smith & Jonides, 1999). These processes allow us to do such things as participate in a conversation despite having something else on our minds, modify routine responses, learn new tasks, notice and correct inappropriate behavior, and regulate our emotional responses (Posner & Rothbart, 2000; Stuss & Alexander, 2000; Zelazo & Cunningham, 2007).

It is well documented that deficits in EF can result in behaviors becoming repetitive and stimulus bound and in difficulties in successfully integrating perceptual information in cognitive tasks (Baddeley, 1986; Stuss & Levine, 2002). However, the role of EF deficits in emotion regulation is not as well understood. Emotion regulatory processes are goal-directed behaviors, functioning to modify dynamic features of emotion such as the magnitude and duration of behavioral (i.e., expressive), experiential, and physiological responses (Gross & Thompson, 2007). Successful emotion regulation draws heavily on EF in realms such as anticipating outcomes, planning, and executing responses (e.g., Banfield, Wyland, Macrae, Münte, & Heatherton, 2004; Denckla, 1996). For example, in order to downregulate manifestations of fear in response to a threatening stimulus, one has to integrate perceptual cues, anticipate one's responses to these cues, devise an action plan (e.g., keep one's breathing steady and facial muscles immobile), and continuously monitor and adjust ongoing behavior.

Indeed, studies using neurologically intact populations show that EF is related to the ability to modulate emotionally laden responses, such as reducing prejudiced behaviors (von Hippel, Silver, & Lynch, 2000), reducing biased opinions (Payne, 2005), refraining from expressing disgust in a socially unacceptable setting (von Hippel & Gonsalkorale, 2005), and delaying gratification (Eigsti et al., 2006). Because EF is thought to be related to the integrity of the frontal lobes (e.g., Royall et al., 2002), lesion studies that report diminished emotion regulatory functioning among patients with circumscribed focal damage also support the idea that EF is related to emotion regulation. Specifically, researchers suggest that frontal lobe damage and resultant EF deficits compromise abilities to integrate emotional cues into decision making (e. …

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