December 21, 2004
Brain Scan Shows Fast Reaction To Fearful Face Pictures

If images of fearful faces are flashed in front of a person too quickly for the person to recognize a face a part of the brain still reacts to the fearful expression.

Using a high-resolution version of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the researchers observed a structure in the brain important for emotional processing - the amygdala - lights up with activity when people unconsciously detected the fearful faces.

Although the study was conducted in people who had no anxiety disorders, the researchers says that the findings should also apply to people with anxiety disorders.

“Psychologists have suggested that people with anxiety disorders are very sensitive to subliminal threats and are picking up stimuli the rest of us do not perceive,” says Dr. Joy Hirsch, professor of neuroradiology and psychology and director of the fMRI Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center, where the study was conducted. “Our findings now demonstrate a biological basis for that unconscious emotional vigilance.”

A part of the brain involved in the feeling of anxious reactions responded to fearful pictures even if the pictures were flashed up too quickly for the conscious mind to become aware of the pictures.

In the study, the researchers presented images of fearful facial expressions, which are powerful signals of danger in all cultures, to 17 different subjects. None of the 17 volunteers had any anxiety disorders, but their underlying anxiety varied from the 6th to the 85th percentile of undergraduate norms, as measured by a well-validated questionnaire.

“These are the type of normal differences that would be apparent if these people got stuck in an elevator,” Dr. Hirsch says. “Some of them would go to sleep; some would climb the walls.”

While the subjects were looking at a computer, the researchers displayed an image of a fearful face onto the monitor for 33 milliseconds, immediately followed by a similar neutral face. The fearful face appeared and disappeared so quickly that the subjects had no conscious awareness of it.

But the fMRI scans clearly revealed that the brain had registered the face and reacted, even though the subjects denied seeing it. These scans show that the unconsciously perceived face activates the input end of the amygdala, along with regions in the cortex that are involved with attention and vision.

Brain activity varies with level of anxiety

The researchers also noticed that the amount of brain activity varied from person to person, depending on their scores on the anxiety quiz.

The amygdalas of anxious people was far more active than the amygdalas of less anxious people. And anxious subjects showed more activity in the attention and vision regions of the cortex, which manifested itself in faster and more accurate answers when the subjects were asked questions about the neutral face.

“What we think we’ve identified is a circuit in the brain that’s responsible for enhancing the processing of unconsciously detected threats in anxious people,” says Amit Etkin, the study’s first author. “An anxious person devotes more attention and visual processing to analyze the threat. A less anxious person uses the circuit to a lesser degree because they don’t perceive the face as much as a threat.”

Unconscious vs. conscious processing of fearful faces

In contrast to unconscious processing of fearful faces, the researchers found that when subjects looked at the fearful faces for 200 milliseconds, long enough for conscious recognition, a completely different brain circuit was used to process the information. And the activity in that circuit did not vary according to the subject’s level of anxiety.

“Our study shows that there’s a very important role for unconscious emotions in anxiety,” Etkin says.

This reminds me of claims decades ago that some movie theaters were supposedly splicing pictures of food in with movies using durations too short to be consciously registered but still long enough to make someone want to go buy some popcorn and candy. Well, can the flashing up of food pictures for periods too short to be registered by the conscious mind still manage to provoke a hunger pang just like these scary faces provoke the beginning of an anxiety reaction?

This technique could be used in movies to create anxious reactions to scary scenes. Though how well it worked would depend on each movie watcher's proneness to anxiety.

Also, could this technique be used in interrogations to increase the anxiety of a subject of interrogation? Would that help the interrogators succeed in getting useful information? Imagine the subject being left in a room to watch a seemingly soothing TV show that has 33 millisecond flashes of anxious faces spliced into the video stream.

Then there are the anxious and fearful people of the world: They shouldn't look at each other's faces. They probably feed off of each other's fear. They should have pictures of happy and relaxed people on walls near their work desks and at home.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 December 21 02:14 AM  Brain Emotions

gmoke said at December 21, 2004 9:33 PM:

Just imagine the applications in political campaign ads alone!!

Randall Parker said at December 21, 2004 10:25 PM:


Companies could measure the anxiety level distribution in their customer bases and among those they want to have buy their products. Provoking of fear combined with signs that buying a product will reduce fear would probably work for those most prone to anxiety. Though some anxious people might respond by ignoring the ads in order to avoid thinking fearful thoughts.

wade said at December 22, 2004 9:56 AM:

Has anybody measured the reaction in people with Autism?

MemoryShock said at April 10, 2005 9:40 AM:

Randall.......a subliminal wouldn't cause a hunger pain would [b]remind[/b] the unconscious of the hunger pain and cause the body to react as if it were hungry. Also, the less anxious individuals in our world could be affected as well.......soothing subliminals anyone?

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