Visual avoidance in phobia: particularities in neural activity, autonomic responding, and cognitive risk evaluations.

Aue, Tatjana; Hoeppli, Marie-Eve; Piguet, Camille; Sterpenich, Virginie; Vuilleumier, Patrik (2013). Visual avoidance in phobia: particularities in neural activity, autonomic responding, and cognitive risk evaluations. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7(194), p. 194. Frontiers Research Foundation 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00194

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We investigated the neural mechanisms and the autonomic and cognitive responses associated with visual avoidance behavior in spider phobia. Spider phobic and control participants imagined visiting different forest locations with the possibility of encountering spiders, snakes, or birds (neutral reference category). In each experimental trial, participants saw a picture of a forest location followed by a picture of a spider, snake, or bird, and then rated their personal risk of encountering these animals in this context, as well as their fear. The greater the visual avoidance of spiders that a phobic participant demonstrated (as measured by eye tracking), the higher were her autonomic arousal and neural activity in the amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and precuneus at picture onset. Visual avoidance of spiders in phobics also went hand in hand with subsequently reduced cognitive risk of encounters. Control participants, in contrast, displayed a positive relationship between gaze duration toward spiders, on the one hand, and autonomic responding, as well as OFC, ACC, and precuneus activity, on the other hand. In addition, they showed reduced encounter risk estimates when they looked longer at the animal pictures. Our data are consistent with the idea that one reason for phobics to avoid phobic information may be grounded in heightened activity in the fear circuit, which signals potential threat. Because of the absence of alternative efficient regulation strategies, visual avoidance may then function to down-regulate cognitive risk evaluations for threatening information about the phobic stimuli. Control participants, in contrast, may be characterized by a different coping style, whereby paying visual attention to potentially threatening information may help them to actively down-regulate cognitive evaluations of risk.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


07 Faculty of Human Sciences > Institute of Psychology > Psychological and Behavioral Health

UniBE Contributor:

Aue, Tatjana


100 Philosophy > 150 Psychology
600 Technology > 610 Medicine & health
500 Science > 570 Life sciences; biology




Frontiers Research Foundation


[4] Swiss National Science Foundation




Tatjana Aue

Date Deposited:

24 Aug 2015 11:29

Last Modified:

12 Mar 2021 10:25

Publisher DOI:


PubMed ID:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

autonomic nervous system activity; cognitive risk; eye tracking; fMRI; fear; phobia; vigilance-avoidance; visual attention




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