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Anxious monkeys avoid angry faces

A new study of rhesus monkeys suggests that emotion also affects what they look at, and in strikingly similar ways to humans.

Posted: 3 September 2012

image for news story Anxious monkeys avoid angry faces
Our feelings dramatically affect how we look at the world around us

Our feelings dramatically affect how we look at the world around us, and which things we focus our attention on…and what we look at can subsequently change how we feel. Highly anxious people, for example, are unable to look for long towards threatening stimuli such as angry faces – they simply cannot cope with the additional stress it causes.

A new study by the University of Roehampton of rhesus monkeys suggests that emotion also affects what they look at, and in strikingly similar ways to humans. These results may help us to understand some of the most common psychological conditions of modern times .

It is well known that anxious people tend quite literally to see the worst – they direct their gaze towards potential threats in the environment, such as people with aggressive expressions. A new study of rhesus monkeys, led by Dr Emily Bethell of the University of Roehampton, has provided the first evidence that this impact of anxiety on attention is not unique to humans.

“This is great for dealing with threatening situations, but when anxiety levels get really high, some people are unable to cope with the subsequent increases in anxiety and become highly avoidant of these same threatening signals. This seriously hampers the ability to deal mentally with the situation; they know there is a threat out there but just can’t bear to face it head on. This all magnifies the negative emotions they feel as a result. In extreme cases, these processes are thought to contribute to a range of debilitating psychological conditions such as social phobia and schizophrenia,” said Dr Bethell.

Dr Bethell presented captive rhesus monkeys with two monitors, one showing an aggressive monkey face, the other a relaxed face. By measuring which face monkeys looked at and for how long, she was able to monitor their attention. Each monkey was tested in two situations: once during a normal day and once on a day following a standard - but nevertheless stressful - veterinary health check-up. On the normal day, monkeys monitored the aggressive face…an adaptive response to deal with threat. However, after the veterinary check-up, while monkeys were still quick to look at the aggressive face, they quickly looked away and subsequently avoided making eye contact with it.

“These results suggest that the close link between anxiety and visual attention seen in humans has its evolutionary roots at least 25 million years ago, when the macaque and human lineages diverged. How we respond to anxiety today may therefore reflect adaptation to an environment where detecting danger – be it a predator or an enemy – really was the difference between life and death,” she said.

“The authors of the study hope that their findings may help us understand why in some people, there is a downward spiral in which anxiety changes patterns of attention, and these changes further increase anxiety.”

Dr Bethell and her colleagues are now carrying out similar studies with wild rhesus monkeys to see how emotion affects attention in real-world settings.

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