Evolutionary and Modern Image Content Differentially Influence the Processing of Emotional Pictures
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AbstractFrom an evolutionary perspective, environmental threats relevant for survival constantly challenged human beings. Current research suggests the evolution of a fear processing module in the brain to cope with these threats. Recently, humans increasingly encountered modern threats (e.g., guns or car accidents) in addition to evolutionary threats (e.g., snakes or predators) which presumably required an adaptation of perception and behavior. However, the neural processes underlying the perception of these different threats remain to be elucidated. We investigated the effect of image content (i.e., evolutionary vs. modern threats) on the activation of neural networks of emotion processing. During functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) 41 participants watched affective pictures displaying evolutionary-threatening, modern-threatening, evolutionary-neutral and modern-neutral content. Evolutionary-threatening stimuli evoked stronger activations than modern-threatening stimuli in left inferior frontal gyrus and thalamus, right middle frontal gyrus and parietal regions as well as bilaterally in parietal regions, fusiform gyrus and bilateral amygdala. We observed the opposite effect, i.e., higher activity for modern-threatening than for evolutionary-threatening stimuli, bilaterally in the posterior cingulate and the parahippocampal gyrus. We found no differences in subjective arousal ratings between the two threatening conditions. On the valence scale though, subjects rated modern-threatening pictures significantly more negative than evolutionary-threatening pictures, indicating a higher level of perceived threat. The majority of previous studies show a positive relationship between arousal rating and amygdala activity. However, comparing fMRI results with behavioral findings we provide evidence that neural activity in fear processing areas is not only driven by arousal or valence, but presumably also by the evolutionary content of the stimulus. This has also fundamental methodological implications, in the sense to suggest a more elaborate classification of stimulus content to improve the validity of experimental designs.