Maxwell, J. S., Shackman, A. J. & Davidson, R. J. (2005). Unattended facial expressions asymmetrically bias the concurrent processing of non-emotional information. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17, 1386-1395.
Planned and reflexive behaviors often occur in the presence of emotional stimuli and within the context of an individual’s acute emotional state. Therefore, determining the manner in which emotion and attention interact is an important step toward understanding how we function in the real world. Participants in the current investigation viewed centrally displayed, task-irrelevant, face distractors (angry, neutral, happy) while performing a lateralized go/no-go continuous performance task. Lateralized go targets and no-go lures that did not spatially overlap with the faces were employed to differentially probe processing in the left (LH) and right (RH) cerebral hemispheres. There was a significant interaction between expression and hemisphere, with an overall pattern such that angry distractors were associated with relatively more RH inhibitory errors than neutral or happy distractors and happy distractors with relatively more LH inhibitory errors than angry or neutral distractors. Simple effects analyses confirmed that angry faces differentially interfered with RH relative to LH inhibition and with inhibition in the RH relative to happy faces. A significant three-way interaction further revealed that state anxiety moderated relations between emotional expression and hemisphere. Under conditions of low cognitive load, more intense anxiety was associated with relatively greater RH than LH impairment in the presence of both happy and threatening distractors. By contrast, under high load, only angry distractors produced greater RH than LH interference as a function of anxiety.