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A First Impression of Fear

fearful eyesAn interesting study by Vanderbilt University researchers discovers that the brain becomes aware of fearful faces more quickly than those showing other emotions.

“There are reasons to believe that the brain has evolved mechanisms to detect things in the environment that signal threat. One of those signals is a look of fear,” David Zald, associate professor of psychology and a co-author of the new study, said.

“We believe that the brain can detect certain cues even before we are aware of them, so that we can direct our attention to potentially threatening situations in our environment.”

The study will appear in the November 2007 issue of Emotion.

The researcher team set out to determine if we become aware of fearful, neutral or happy expressions at the same speed, or if one of these expressions reaches our awareness faster than the others.

Lab testing determined subjects became aware of faces that had fearful expressions before neutral or happy faces. The scientists believe a brain area called the amygdala, which shortcuts the normal brain pathway for processing visual images, is responsible.

“The amygdala receives information before it goes to the cortex, which is where most visual information goes first. We think the amygdala has some crude ability to process stimuli and that it can cue some other visual areas to what they need to focus on,” Zald said.

Zald and his colleagues believe the eyes of the fearful face play a key role.

“Fearful eyes are a particular shape, where you get more of the whites of the eye showing,” he said.

“That may be the sort of simple feature that the amygdala can pick up on, because it’s only getting a fairly crude representation. That fearful eye may be something that’s relatively hardwired in there.”

A surprising finding was that subjects perceived happy faces the slowest.

“What we believe is happening is that the happy faces signal safety. If something is safe, you don’t have to pay attention to it,” Zald said.

Next, the researchers will explore how this information influences our behavior.

“We are interested in now exploring what this means for behavior,” Yang said. “Since these expressions are being processed without our awareness, do they affect our behavior and our decision making? If so, how?”

Source: Vanderbilt University

A First Impression of Fear

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). A First Impression of Fear. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 22, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2007/10/18/a-first-impression-of-fear/1427.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
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