Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Psychophysiological Correlates of Attention to Emotional Information in Youth

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Psychophysiological Correlates of Attention to Emotional Information in Youth

Article excerpt

Attention to emotional stimuli has been associated with psychological health among adults and youth. In this study, we examined 2 putative functional psychophysiological correlates of attention to emotional information in a community sample of 135 youth (Mage^12 years, 7 months; SDage^1 year, 1 month; 50% girls). After measuring resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), participants completed a 1,500 ms emotional faces dot probe task with eye tracking. We examined pupil dilation during angry, sad, and happy trials and predicted that lower resting RSA and greater pupil dilation would be associated with relatively greater attention to negative stimuli. Results partially confirmed our hypothesis. Lower resting RSA was associated with relatively greater attention to sad faces. Lower resting RSA was also associated with relatively greater attention to angry faces when pupil dilation was lower. RSA may be an important functional correlate of attention that should be explored further in future research.

Keywords: adolescents; attention bias; vagal tone; pupil dilation; respiratory sinus arrhythmia; heart rate variability

Attention to emotional information has been associated with psychological health in both youth and adults. For example, biased attention toward sad stimuli has been associated with depression, whereas biased attention toward angry stimuli has been associated with anxiety (Mathews & MacLeod, 2005; Mogg & Bradley, 2005). Biased attentional patterns may be an important marker of future psychopathology (e.g., Joormann, Talbot, & Gotlib, 2007); thus, understanding them has important implications for the assessment, prevention, and treatment of psychopathology. One way to better understand these attentional patterns is to examine whether they are associated with functional physiological processes involved in emotion. Surprisingly, little research has been devoted to this topic, especially among youth. This study examines two possible psychophysiological correlates of attention to emotional information among youth: pupil dilation and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA).

RESEARCH ON ATTENTION TO EMOTIONAL STIMULI IN ADULTS AND YOUTH

Different tasks have been used to evaluate possible attention biases, with the two most common being an emotional Stroop task and an attentional probe method (Mathews & MacLeod, 2005). Emotional Stroop tasks compare the response latency of naming the colors of emotionally valenced words compared to neutral ones. Biases are inferred when color naming takes longer on emotional words compared to neutral words. Attentional probe methods briefly present stimuli (typically emotional and neutral words) on a computer screen and then assess how rapidly participants can find a probe that replaces one of the stimuli. Individuals respond faster to a probe that is presented in an attended rather than unattended area of a display; thus, attention is inferred based on reaction time (RT; Mathews & MacLeod, 2005; Mogg & Bradley, 2005).

ADULTS

Research examining clinically depressed or anxious adults has generated considerable evidence, suggesting that both of these disorders are associated with biased attention related to emotional information (Mathews & MacLeod, 2005; Mogg & Bradley, 2005). Specifically, depressive disorders have generally been associated with attention to sad stimuli, whereas anxiety disorders have been associated with a bias toward or away from threat or angry stimuli, depending on the amount of time the stimulus is presented (Mathews & MacLeod, 2005).

Interestingly, the bias toward sad stimuli often seen with depressive disorders is only present when the stimulus is presented for a fairly long time (1,000 ms or longer; Mathews & MacLeod, 2005). In their review, Gotlib and Joormann (2010) concluded that although depressed individuals may not automatically orient their attention toward negative information, once this negative information has become the focus of their attention, they may have greater difficulty disengaging from it. …

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