Cardiac vagal tone predicts attentional engagement to and disengagement from fearful faces

Gewnhi Park, Jay J. Van Bavel, Michael W. Vasey, Julian F. Thayer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The current research examines individual differences in flexible emotional attention. In two experiments, we investigated the relationship between individual differences in cardiac vagal tone and top-down and bottom-up processes associated with emotional attention. To help determine the role of cortical and subcortical mechanisms underlying top-down and bottom-up emotional attention, fearful faces at broad, high, and low spatial frequency were presented as cues that triggered either exogenous or endogenous orienting. Participants with lower heart rate variability (HRV) exhibited faster attentional engagement to low-spatial-frequency fearful faces at short stimulus-onset asynchronies, but showed delayed attentional disengagement from high-spatial-frequency fearful faces at long stimulus-onset asynchronies in contrast to participants with higher HRV. This research suggests that cardiac vagal tone is associated with more adaptive top-down and bottom-up modulation of emotional attention. Implications for various affective disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder, are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)645-656
Number of pages12
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2013


  • Bottom-up
  • Cardiac vagal tone
  • Emotional attention
  • Top-down

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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