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J Cogn Neurosci. 2008 May;20(5):879-91. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2008.20510.

Brain responses to biological relevance.

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  • 1University of British Columbia.


This study examines whether orienting attention to biologically based social cues engages neural mechanisms distinct from those engaged by orienting to nonbiologically based nonsocial cues. Participants viewed a perceptually ambiguous stimulus presented centrally while performing a target detection task. By having participants alternate between viewing this stimulus as an eye in profile or an arrowhead, we were able to directly compare the neural mechanisms of attentional orienting to social and nonsocial cues while holding the physical stimulus constant. The functional magnetic resonance imaging results indicated that attentional orienting to both eye gaze and arrow cues engaged extensive dorsal and ventral fronto-parietal networks. Eye gaze cues, however, more vigorously engaged two regions in the ventral frontal cortex associated with attentional reorienting to salient or meaningful stimuli, as well as lateral occipital regions. An event-related potential study demonstrated that this enhanced occipital response was attributable to a higher-amplitude sensory gain effect for targets appearing at locations cued by eye gaze than for those cued by an arrowhead. These results endorse the hypothesis that differences in attention to social and nonsocial cues are quantitative rather than qualitative, running counter to current models that assume enhanced processing for social stimuli reflects the involvement of a unique network of brain regions. An intriguing implication of the present study is the possibility that our ability to orient volitionally and reflexively to socially irrelevant stimuli, including arrowheads, may have arisen as a useful by-product of a system that developed first, and foremost, to promote social orienting to stimuli that are biologically relevant.

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