Selective attention plays a fundamental role in emotion regulation. To date, research has examined individuals’ use of selective attention to regulate emotional responses during stimulus presentation. In the present study, we examined whether selective attention can be used to regulate emotional responses during a poststimulus period when representations are active within working memory (WM). On each trial, participants viewed either a negative or a neutral image. After the offset of the image, they maintained a representation of it in WM and were cued to focus their attention on either neutral or arousing aspects of that representation. Results showed that, relative to focusing on an arousing portion of a negative-image representation within WM, focusing on a neutral portion of the representation reduced both self-reported negative emotion and the late positive potential, a robust neural measure of emotional reactivity. These data suggest that selective attention can alter emotional responses arising from affective representations active within WM.
Figure (click to enlarge): Illustration of the trial structure. After an initial fixation period, an image (either negative or neutral) appeared on-screen for 1,500 ms. Then, two circles were overlaid on the image for 1,500 ms. For negative images (as shown here), one circle highlighted a neutral portion, whereas the other circle highlighted an arousing portion. For neutral images, both circles highlighted neutral portions. The image then disappeared, leaving a black screen for 750 ms, during which participants held the full image in working memory. Then, one of the circles was presented briefly for 250 ms. In the subsequent 3,000-ms interval, participants had to focus their attention on the portion of the image that had previously been contained within the target circle. Participants then rated how pleasant or unpleasant they felt.