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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Dec 16;111(50):18037-42. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1420167111. Epub 2014 Dec 3.

Effect of distracting faces on visual selective attention in the monkey.

Author information

McGovern Institute for Brain Research and
Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139; Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, MA 02129; Department of Radiology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115; and.
Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139; Simons Center for the Social Brain, Cambridge, MA 02139.


In primates, visual stimuli with social and emotional content tend to attract attention. Attention might be captured through rapid, automatic, subcortical processing or guided by slower, more voluntary cortical processing. Here we examined whether irrelevant faces with varied emotional expressions interfere with a covert attention task in macaque monkeys. In the task, the monkeys monitored a target grating in the periphery for a subtle color change while ignoring distracters that included faces appearing elsewhere on the screen. The onset time of distracter faces before the target change, as well as their spatial proximity to the target, was varied from trial to trial. The presence of faces, especially faces with emotional expressions interfered with the task, indicating a competition for attentional resources between the task and the face stimuli. However, this interference was significant only when faces were presented for greater than 200 ms. Emotional faces also affected saccade velocity and reduced pupillary reflex. Our results indicate that the attraction of attention by emotional faces in the monkey takes a considerable amount of processing time, possibly involving cortical-subcortical interactions. Intranasal application of the hormone oxytocin ameliorated the interfering effects of faces. Together these results provide evidence for slow modulation of attention by emotional distracters, which likely involves oxytocinergic brain circuits.


attention; faces; oxytocin; social; vision

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