Surprising Threats Accelerate Conscious Perception

Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol. 16 (2022)

Keywords
Authors
  • Jessica McFadyen
  • Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
  • Jessica McFadyen
  • Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, University College London, London, United Kingdom
  • Jessica McFadyen
  • Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function, Clayton, VIC, Australia
  • Naotsugu Tsuchiya
  • School of Psychological Sciences and Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Monash University, Clayton, VIC, Australia
  • Naotsugu Tsuchiya
  • Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNet), National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), Osaka, Japan
  • Naotsugu Tsuchiya
  • Advanced Telecommunications Research Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, Kyoto, Japan
  • Jason B. Mattingley
  • Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
  • Jason B. Mattingley
  • Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function, Clayton, VIC, Australia
  • Jason B. Mattingley
  • School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
  • Jason B. Mattingley
  • Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • Marta I. Garrido
  • Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
  • Marta I. Garrido
  • Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function, Clayton, VIC, Australia
  • Marta I. Garrido
  • Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Abstract

The folk psychological notion that “we see what we expect to see” is supported by evidence that we become consciously aware of visual stimuli that match our prior expectations more quickly than stimuli that violate our expectations. Similarly, “we see what we want to see,” such that more biologically-relevant stimuli are also prioritised for conscious perception. How, then, is perception shaped by biologically-relevant stimuli that we did not expect? Here, we conducted two experiments using breaking continuous flash suppression (bCFS) to investigate how prior expectations modulated response times to neutral and fearful faces. In both experiments, we found that prior expectations for neutral faces hastened responses, whereas the opposite was true for fearful faces. This interaction between emotional expression and prior expectations was driven predominantly by participants with higher trait anxiety. Electroencephalography (EEG) data collected in Experiment 2 revealed an interaction evident in the earliest stages of sensory encoding, suggesting prediction errors expedite sensory encoding of fearful faces. These findings support a survival hypothesis, where biologically-relevant fearful stimuli are prioritised for conscious access even more so when unexpected, especially for people with high trait anxiety.

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