On 10 June 2014 Andero Uusberg will defence his doctoral thesis "Electroencephalographic insights into affective attention" in the Council of the Faculty of the Social Sciences and Education.
Professor Jüri Allik, University of Tartu
Dr Gennady Knyazev, Siberian Branch of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Russia
Why does a beautiful face stand out from a crowd? Or even a distant braking screech captures attention? A recent doctoral thesis suggests the reason may be faster processing of emotional information.
The brain is equipped with various attention mechanisms for sorting out important information from potentially overwhelming sensory input. While top-down attention enables us to concentrate and bottom-up attention to remain vigilant for unexpected aspects of the environment, there is also a third system sensitive to emotional information. This affective attention is responsible for spotting opportunities such as a valuable mate or threats such as a traffic accident.
Scientists do not fully comprehend however, how does competition between attention systems is resolved in the brain. As an example, consider a reader of an online news story whose eyes also capture a juicy headline at a sidebar. Sometimes affective attention succeeds in breaking the concentration on the story in favour of the emotional distraction. At other times however, top-down attention prevails and reading continues uninterrupted.
In his thesis, Andero Uusberg investigated the idea that the competition between attentional systems changes across time. More specifically, affective attention may be faster off the mark while after about a third of a second however, top-down attention catches up and the subsequent focus is determined in co-operation. This framework explained several aspects of electrical brain activity measured while participants viewed emotionally evocative photographs. More broadly, different onsets can explain why safe stimuli such as a distant braking screech still captivates us - it takes a moment for the more context-aware top-down attention system to correct the early reaction of the more primitive affective attention.
The thesis also has implications for everyday emotion regulation. To cope with unpleasant events such as medical procedures, people are sometimes advised to distract themselves by thinking of something else. In this regard, the present findings imply that this strategy requires the distractive mental activity to be reasonably difficult. For instance, when participants were asked to imagine their neighbourhoods with high level of detail, they indeed paid less attention to unpleasant photographs as well as experienced less intense emotional reactions. When they merely thought of nonaffective features of affective images however, emotional attention was attenuated only modestly.