Negative, but not positive emotional images modulate the startle response independent of conscious awareness

Academic Article


  • The emotional response to a threat is influenced by the valence of other stimuli in the environment. This emotional modulation of the threat-elicited response occurs even when negative valence stimuli are not consciously perceived. Relatively little prior research has investigated whether nonconsciously perceived positive valence stimuli modify the response to a threat, and the work that has been completed is in need of additional rigorous testing of stimulus and valence perception. The current study presented images of negative, neutral, and positive valence (1,000 ms and 17 ms durations), followed by a mask. A startle probe (100 dB whitenoise) was presented during 33% of each trial type while eyeblink electromyography (EMG) and skin conductance response (SCR) were measured. During the study, participants rated the emotional content of each image to assess valence perception. Participants accurately classified the valence of 1,000 ms images, but not 17 ms images. Further, participants performed at chance levels on an independent postexperimental forced-choice perception task using 17 ms masked images, indicating they were unable to perceive the valence and content of these images. Greater EMG and SCR were elicited by the startle probe during perceived and unperceived negative images compared to perceived and unperceived positive and neutral images. In addition, perceived, but not unperceived positive images diminished startle responses. The current findings suggest that images of negative valence potentiate the startle response in the absence of conscious stimulus perception. However, the attenuation of the startle response by positive images appears to require perception of the emotional valence of an image. © 2013 American Psychological Association.
  • Authors

    Published In

  • Emotion  Journal
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Reagh ZM; Knight DC
  • Start Page

  • 782
  • End Page

  • 791
  • Volume

  • 13
  • Issue

  • 4