Getting mixed messages: the impact of conflicting social signals on the brain's target emotional response.
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Amidst a barrage of sensory information in the environment, the impact that individual stimuli have on our behaviour is thought to depend on the outcome of competition that occurs within and between multiple brain regions. Although biased competition models of attention have been tested in visual cortices and to a lesser extent in auditory cortex, little is known about the nature of stimulus competition outside of sensory areas. Given the hypothesized role of multiple pathways (cortical and subcortical) and specialized brain regions for processing valence information, studies involving conflicting basic emotional stimuli provide a unique opportunity to examine whether the principles of biased competition apply outside of sensory cortex. We used fMRI to examine the neural representation and resolution of emotional conflict in a sample of healthy individuals. Participants made explicit judgments about the valence of happy or fearful target facial expressions in the context of emotionally congruent, neutral, or incongruent distracters. The results suggest that emotional conflict is reflected in a dissociable manner across distinct neural regions. Posterior areas of visual cortex showed enhanced responding to congruent relative to neutral or incongruent stimuli. Orbitofrontal cortex remained sensitive to positive affect in the context of conflicting emotional stimuli. In contrast, within the amygdala, activity associated with identifying positive target expressions declined with the introduction of neutral and incongruent expressions; however, activity associated with fearful target expressions was less susceptible to the influence of emotional context. Enhanced functional connectivity was observed between medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala during incongruent trials; the degree of connectivity was correlated with reaction time costs incurred during incongruent trials. The results are interpreted with reference to current models of emotional attention and regulation.