Why or How Do Emotions Grab Attention? – Science News

A study involving the analysis of rhesus monkeys’ brains suggests how we may be physiologically wired to focus on emotional stimulus. Researchers injected a dye into the brains of 10 rhesus monkeys which traced individual neurons along the length of their axons.  It’s a technique that can highlight physiology in more detail than is possible with current brain imaging technology. Scientists discovered that axons from the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, converge on a major site believed to be involved with the capacity for attentional focus, the thalamic reticular nucleus.

These axons provide a route to direct the mind to where attention needs to go. The weight of these axonal and synaptic inputs were found to be significant enough to suggest a strong firing relationship in the conscious animal.

It’s believed that in some psychiatric disorders a dysfunction in this system is what makes it difficult for a person to focus on anything other than their emotional state. Anxiety disorders are marked by this hypervigilance to potential threats, real or falsely perceived from the outside world.

Nerve cells from the brain’s emotion hub talk directly to a region that doles out attention, a study of monkeys shows. The connection, described in the April 11 Journal of Neuroscience, may help explain how people automatically focus on emotional events.

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