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14. State Anxiety and Cognitive Control: Evidence from a Combined Study of Shock Paradigm, Eye-tracking, and EEG
Cognitive control construct, including attention, inhibitory control, working memory, involves the regulation and processing of goal-driven behavior flexibly in the environment while ignoring task-irrelevant distracting stimuli. The Dual Mechanism of Control theory (Braver, 2012) posits two distinct modes of cognitive control: proactive control and reactive control. Proactive distraction filtering (PDF) pre-emptively modulates selective target processing, whereas reactive distraction filtering (RDF) relies on late adjustments of attentional control in response to distractors. While it is well documented that anxiety disturbs attentional processing, however, it is unclear whether it would distinctively impact these two modes of distraction filtering. This two-phase study sought to examine the specific behavioral, eye-gaze and neural correlates of PDF and RDF, under safe and threatening conditions. Previous studies used more than one cognitive task to disentangle the underlying processing of the two mechanisms which suffered the validity and reliability. However, this experiment took advantage of a novel context manipulation design to explore PDF and RDF using only one task (Marini et al, 2016). The study utilized flanker task with three blocks to create different levels of expectations for conflicting information: No-Distraction (presenting only the central arrow without flanking distractors), Infrequent-Distraction (60% congruent, 20% incongruent, and 20% single-arrow trials, designed to trigger RDF), and Frequent-Distraction (60% incongruent, 20% congruent, and 20% single-arrow trials; designed to trigger PDF). The task indexes “conflict-cost” (i.e., incongruent RT – congruent RT) and “filtering-cost” (i.e., single-arrow RT in Distraction conditions – single-arrow RT in No-Distraction). Behavioral data of the first study (N=59) showed that PDF significantly lowered the conflict-cost (t(58)=3.33, p=0.025) while increasing the filtering-cost (t(58)=2.3, p=0.002), indicating that although PDF is beneficial when distraction presents, its recruitment isn’t without costs when expected distraction is absent. Particularly, eye-tracking data revealed that PDF is characterized by prolonged fixations on the central target with reduced attention deployed toward the peripheral area (t(50)=3.03, p=0.004), compared to the RDF, showing that the heightened filtering-cost in PDF may be caused by the narrow attentional focus with inflexible or deficient attentional deployment toward the areas surrounding the central target. N2 amplitude (well-established ERP component of conflict monitoring) was lowest in RDF compared with PDF, attesting that PDF pre-emptive mode of distraction control was in operation in anticipation of forthcoming distractors with lower conflict (t(50)=2.38, p=0.02). Adding threat of shock to the design, the behavioral data of the second study revealed opposite results with significant lower magnitudes under threat of shock relative to safe condition. Specifically, there is a significant enhancing effect of shock on RDF, but not PDF, such that shock disturbs pre-emptive distraction processing, resulting in higher conflict cost and lower filtering cost, while facilitating readjustment to unexpected distraction stimuli. This result provides useful data that illuminate the specific behavioral, eye-gaze, and neural correlates of PDF vs. RDF under safe and heightened anxious state. Particularly, it highlights that state anxiety may impair proactive control in situations that distraction is expected but is absent, while facilitates reactive control to allocate and readjust attention to process the current task at hand in the face of unexpected distraction.