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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00439

Quantifying intermodal distraction by emotion during math performance: an electrophysiological approach

  • 1Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey, United States
  • 2Department of Psychology, University of Florida, United States

Emotionally engaging stimuli are powerful competitors for limited attention capacity. In the cognitive neuroscience laboratory, the presence of task-irrelevant emotionally arousing visual distractors prompts decreased performance and attenuated brain responses measured in concurrent visual tasks. The extent to which distraction effects occur across different sensory modalities is not yet established, however. Here we examined the extent and time course of competition between a naturalistic distractor sound and a visual task stimulus, using dense-array electroencephalography (EEG) recordings from 20 college students. Steady-state visual evoked potentials (ssVEPs) were quantified from EEG, elicited by periodically flickering vignettes displaying basic arithmetic problems—the participants’ primary task. Concurrently, low-arousing and high-arousing sounds were presented, as well as auditory pink noise, used as a control. Capitalizing on the temporal dynamics of the ssVEP signal allowed us to study intermodal interference of the sounds with the processing of the visual math problems. We observed that high-arousing sounds were associated with diminished visuocortical responses and poor performance, compared to low-arousing sounds and pink noise, suggesting that emotional distraction acts across modalities. We discuss the role of sensory cortices in emotional distraction along with implications for translational research in educational neuroscience.

Keywords: EEG, steady-state visual evoked potential (SSVEP), Arithmetic, visual attention, auditory distraction, emotional arousal, temporal competition

Received: 31 Oct 2018; Accepted: 13 Feb 2019.

Edited by:

Stefan Berti, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany

Reviewed by:

Benjamin Rahm, University of Freiburg, Germany
Sandra M. Muller, Federal University of Espirito Santo, Brazil  

Copyright: © 2019 Heim and Keil. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Sabine Heim, Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey, Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, New Brunswick, United States,