Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Trait Anxiety and Dynamic Adjustments in Conflict Processing

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Trait Anxiety and Dynamic Adjustments in Conflict Processing

Article excerpt

Recently, it has been assumed that high- and low-trait-anxious subjects differ in the way they use fundamental cognitive control mechanisms. The present study was designed to further elucidate this topic by focusing on trial-to-trial adjustments in neuronal correlates of conflict processing. An electroencephalogram was recorded while subjects (N = 71) performed a gender discrimination version of the Stroop task. The conflict-related N400 of the ERP was influenced by an interaction between trait anxiety and previous trial context: An additional negative-going deflection in the N400 range was observed when the target-distractor pairing of the directly preceding trial was incongruent, but only in highly anxious subjects. Thus, highly anxious subjects appear to more strongly engage neuronal modules involved in conflict monitoring when previously exposed to a high stimulus-response conflict. These results indicate that trait anxiety is crucially linked to the way the cognitive system dynamically adapts to recent demands.

Trait anxiety is probably not only specifically related to the processing of emotional material; it might also be generally linked to individual differences in fundamental cognitive functions. This has been suggested by studies demonstrating relations between trait anxiety and complex cognition, such as working memory (Derakshan & Eysenck, 1998), set shifting (Ansari, Derakshan, & Richards, 2008), and the capability to suppress distracting information (Eysenck & Byrne, 1992; Wood, Mathews, & Dalgleish, 2001).

In their influential attentional control theory (ACT), Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, and Calvo (2007) therefore assumed that high trait anxiety disrupts the balance between goal-directed and stimulus-driven attentional systems (Corbetta & Shulman, 2002), leading to an enhanced intrusion of task-irrelevant information. According to the ACT, behavioral consequences of such anxiety-related deficits in attentional guidance should emerge primarily in tasks requiring inhibitory control and mental set shifting (Miyake et al., 2000) by affecting reaction times (RTs; i.e., processing efficiency) but not accuracy (i.e., processing effectiveness). Moreover, anxious subjects may compensate for this efficiency deficit by a reactive recruitment of additional attentional resources if these are available.

A similar assumption has been put forward by Braver and colleagues (Braver, Gray, & Burgess, 2007; Fales et al., 2008). In their dual mechanisms of control (DMC) account, these authors proposed a link between individual differences in trait anxiety and the general manner in which cognitive control is exerted. Accordingly, during a complex task, low-anxious subjects may engage top-down control in a proactive way by sustaining goal-directed representations in working memory over time. This should lead to a rather low influence of goal-irrelevant information. In contrast, highly anxious subjects are supposed to exert control in a reactive mode by reactivating goal- relevant representations only when these are needed. Consequently, bottom-up input will be more influential.

Although the ACT and DMC accounts apparently differ in some important aspects, they also share some essential ideas. For instance, both theories postulate a reactive and compensatory recruitment of cognitive resources in high-trait-anxious subjects when there is an acute need for top-down guidance. On the neuronal level, this should lead to a stronger transient activation of control networks, especially comprising prefrontal and parietal regions. The present study was planned to further elucidate the potential link between trait anxiety and the recruitment of cognitive control by focusing on dynamic adjustments in electrophysiological correlates of control mechanisms in a trial-to-trial design.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a few studies have already tested for trait-anxiety- associated differences in the activation of cognitive control areas. …

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