Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Schizophrenia and Emotional Rubbernecking

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Schizophrenia and Emotional Rubbernecking

Article excerpt

Abstract Orienting toward emotionally salient information can be adaptive, as when danger needs to be avoided. Consistent with this idea, research has shown that emotionally valenced information draws attention more so than does neutral information in healthy individuals. However, at times this tendency is not adaptive, and it may distract the individual from goals. People with schizophrenia (PSZ), though they frequently show deficits in attentional control, have also been shown to exhibit diminished recognition of and attention to emotional information. In the present study, we investigated how the presentation of emotionally salient information affected performance on a working memory task for PSZ and healthy controls (HC). We found that although hit rates were equal to those of HCs for PSZ, the PSZ made fewer false alarms-resulting in overall better performance-than did the HCs. Deficits in emotional processing in PSZ appear to provide an advantage to them in situations in which salient emotional information competes with active cognitive goals.

Keywords Emotion . Schizophrenia . Attention . Working memory

My PhD mentor, Edward Smith, was well aware of the voluminous literature demonstrating a broad spectrum of cognitive impairments in people with schizophrenia (PSZ; Chapman & Chapman, 1973; Schaefer, Giangrande, Weinberger, & Dickinson, 2013), including deficits in cognitive control (Barch, 2005), memory (Barch, Csernansky, Conturo, & Snyder, 2002), attention (Carter et al., 2010), emotional processing (Gur et al., 2002), and reward learning (Gold, Waltz, Prentice, Morris, & Heerey, 2008), among other abilities. In fact, we previously explored one of these deficits and found that PSZ were unable to suppress information that had already entered working memory (WM; Eich, Nee, Insel, Malapani, & Smith, in press; Smith, Eich, Cebenoyan, & Malapani, 2011). However, consistent with his commitment to understanding- both behaviorally and neurally-the cognitive changes associated with the disease, my mentor also believed that finding and explaining deficiencies was only one way to advance scientific understanding. As such, he challenged me, as part of my dissertation, to develop a task in which PSZ would do better, rather than worse, than healthy controls (HCs). For this article, I sought to rise to my mentor's challenge by creating a novel, modified version of a task in which we had found WM deficits previously. This task aimed to exploit a known deficit in schizophrenia and to turn this deficit into an advantage for PSZ.


Orienting toward salient information can be adaptive (Anderson & Phelps, 2001;LeDoux,1996). However, this often automatic, bottom-up process can also be in opposition to one's active cognitive goals: It would be better for people to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, instead of rubbernecking. Yet it is often times impossible not to crane one's neck to see the accident on the other side of the highway. In these types of situations, a lack of attention to emotionally loaded stimuli might be adaptive.

Limitations of attentional capacity have long been considered a core cognitive deficit in schizophrenia (Bleuler, 1911/1950;Carteretal.,2010;Gjerde,1983;Zubin,1975). A growing body of research suggests that PSZ show deficits in the ability to use top-down processes to guide attention (Fuller et al., 2006). Hahn et al. (2010), for example, showed that when salient (flickering) distractor items were introduced during the encoding phase of a WM task, PSZ showed attentional deficits, which led to impaired memory for less salient (nonflickering) target items. When attention was guided by bottom-up, automatic processes, however, as when target items were highly salient, PSZ were able to shift attention and filter less salient distractors effectively (Gold et al., 2006;Lucketal.,2006). On this basis, it stands to reason that PSZ might show impaired performance relative to healthy controls (HC) in a task in which emotionally salient information must be ignored. …

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