Cortical response to subjectively unconscious danger
Cortical involvement in the evolution-favored automatic reaction to danger was studied. Electrical neural activity was recorded from 31 subjects, reporting fear of spiders, at 60 scalp locations. Visual stimuli containing spiders (negative elements) or, alternatively, nonnegative elements were presented to subjects, though they were unaware of their presence: a concurrent visual detection task using consciously perceived targets was administered. Spatial and temporal principal component analyses were employed to define and quantify, in a reliable manner, the main components of the neuroelectrical response to unconscious stimuli, and a source localization algorithm provided information on their neural origin. Results indicated that around 150 ms after stimulus onset,ventromedial prefrontal areas previously reported as responding rapidly to danger-related (conscious) stimuli were activated by unconsciously perceived spiders more markedly than by nonnegative unconscious stimuli. Subsequently, around 500 ms after stimulus onset, activation of the posterior cingulate and visual association cortices increased in this same direction. These data support previous results indicating that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is involved in the topdown regulation of attention (through its capability to modulate the activity of posterior cortices in charge of visual processing) and that it automatically facilitates danger processing.