Context counts! social anxiety modulates the processing of fearful faces in the context of chemosensory anxiety signals.

Research paper by Dirk D Adolph, Lukas L Meister, Bettina M BM Pause

Indexed on: 27 Jun '13Published on: 27 Jun '13Published in: Frontiers in human neuroscience


During emotion perception, context is an important source of information. Whether contextual cues from modalities other than vision or audition influence the perception of social emotional information has not been investigated. Thus, the present study aimed at testing emotion perception and regulation in response to fearful facial expressions presented in the context of chemosensory stimuli derived from sweat of anxious individuals. In groups of high (HSA) and low socially anxious (LSA) participants we recorded the startle reflex (Experiment I), and analysed event-related potentials (ERPs; Experiment II) while they viewed anxious facial expressions in the context of chemosensory anxiety signals and chemosensory control stimuli. Results revealed that N1/P1 and N170 amplitudes were larger while late positive potential (LPP) activity was smaller for facial expressions presented in the context of the anxiety and the chemosensory control stimulus as compared to facial expressions without a chemosensory context. Furthermore, HSA participants were highly sensitive to the contextual anxiety signals. They showed enhanced motivated attention allocation (LPP, Study II), as well as larger startle responses toward faces in the context of chemosensory anxiety signals than did LSA participants (Study I). Chemosensory context had no effect on emotion regulation, and both LSA and HSA participants showed effective emotion regulation (Study I and II). In conclusion, both anxiety and chemosensory sport context stimuli enhanced early attention allocation and structural encoding, but diminished motivated attention allocation to the facial expressions. The current results show that visual and chemosensory information is integrated on virtually all levels of stimulus processing and that socially anxious individuals might be especially sensitive to chemosensory contextual social information.