The modern world is full of distractions, from YouTube videos that manage to consume the whole workday to the cell phone calls that turn safe drivers into road hazards. According to a bicoastal cadre of researchers, plain ol’ emotions can be distractions that are just as problematic. 

“People with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], general anxiety disorder, and very severe depression just can’t quite clear their minds of emotional stimuli,” said Amit Etkin, a psychiatrist at Stanford University.

In a study published in the Sept. 21 issue of Neuron, Etkin and colleagues at Columbia University explored how the brain handles emotional distraction.

They found that a structure at the front of the brain plays an active role in resolving emotional conflict. It accomplishes this task by diminishing activity in the amygdala, which is known to process emotion

While undergoing fMRI, healthy volunteer subjects viewed a series of images that paired a face expressing an emotion with a word labeling that emotion. Some images, such as a smiling face labeled with the word “happy,” were congruent. Others were incongruent—a smiling face labeled “fear,” for instance. For each image, the subjects were asked to ignore the word and identify the emotion expressed on the face.

The researchers found that just viewing the images was enough to activate the amygdala, which is known to process emotion. When subjects tried to identify the emotions in incongruent images, however, parts of a structure known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) were also activated. The brain scans revealed that the activation of the ACC, which is involved in cognitive processing, suppressed activity in the amygdala.

It is this dampening of the amygdala by the ACC, the researchers conclude, that allows people to filter out emotional stimuli that distract from cognitive tasks.

The researchers also noted that when an incongruent image was preceded by another incongruent image, subjects had an easier time resolving the conflict. Etkin theorizes that this effect is the result of priming the ACC to more quickly filter out distracting emotional labels.

The finding has implications for the diagnosis of psychological disorders in which people suffer from intrusive emotions. For instance, Etkin says this feedback loop may lead to a greater understanding of some patients with PTSD, who are believed to have both underactive ACCs and overactive amygdalas.

“Using this kind of paradigm may be a way to test for emotional control,” Etkin said, adding that it could also serve as a diagnostic “probe” to determine which patients might respond best to antidepressants, as opposed to psychotherapy or other treatments.

Lisa Shin, a psychologist at Tufts University who studies PTSD, agrees. 

“So far, no functional neuroimaging measure has been shown to assist in the diagnosis of PTSD,” she said. “But this would be a great task to use to test patients.”

Originally published October 4, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM