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Neural signatures of the response to emotional distraction: a review of evidence from brain imaging investigations

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
Frontiers Media SA
Publication Date
DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00200
  • Neuroscience
  • Review Article
  • Law


Prompt responses to emotional, potentially threatening, stimuli are supported by neural mechanisms that allow for privileged access of emotional information to processing resources. The existence of these mechanisms can also make emotional stimuli potent distracters, particularly when task-irrelevant. The ability to deploy cognitive control in order to cope with emotional distraction is essential for adaptive behavior, while reduced control may lead to enhanced emotional distractibility, which is often a hallmark of affective disorders. Evidence suggests that increased susceptibility to emotional distraction is linked to changes in the processing of emotional information that affect both the basic response to and coping with emotional distraction, but the neural correlates of these phenomena are not clear. The present review discusses emerging evidence from brain imaging studies addressing these issues, and highlights the following three aspects. First, the response to emotional distraction is associated with opposing patterns of activity in a ventral “hot” affective system (HotEmo, showing increased activity) and a dorsal “cold” executive system (ColdEx, showing decreased activity). Second, coping with emotional distraction involves top–down control in order to counteract the bottom-up influence of emotional distraction, and involves interactions between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Third, both the response to and coping with emotional distraction are influenced by individual differences affecting emotional sensitivity and distractibility, which are linked to alterations of both HotEmo and ColdEx neural systems. Collectively, the available evidence identifies specific neural signatures of the response to emotional challenge, which are fundamental to understanding the mechanisms of emotion-cognition interactions in healthy functioning, and the changes linked to individual variation in emotional distractibility and susceptibility to affective disorders.

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