If it bleeds, it leads: Separating threat from mere negativity

Kestutis Kveraga, Jasmine Boshyan, Reginald B. Adams, Jasmine Mote, Nicole Betz, Noreen Ward, Nouchine Hadjikhani, Moshe Bar, Lisa F. Barrett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Most theories of emotion hold that negative stimuli are threatening and aversive. Yet in everyday experiences some negative sights (e.g. car wrecks) attract curiosity, whereas others repel (e.g. a weapon pointed in our face). To examine the diversity in negative stimuli, we employed four classes of visual images (Direct Threat, Indirect Threat, Merely Negative and Neutral) in a set of behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging studies. Participants reliably discriminated between the images, evaluating Direct Threat stimuli most quickly, and Merely Negative images most slowly. Threat images evoked greater and earlier blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) activations in the amygdala and periaqueductal gray, structures implicated in representing and responding to the motivational salience of stimuli. Conversely, the Merely Negative images evoked larger BOLD signal in the parahippocampal, retrosplenial, and medial prefrontal cortices, regions which have been implicated in contextual association processing. Ventrolateral as well as medial and lateral orbitofrontal cortices were activated by both threatening and Merely Negative images. In conclusion, negative visual stimuli can repel or attract scrutiny depending on their current threat potential, which is assessed by dynamic shifts in large-scale brain network activity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)28-35
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 The Author.


  • Affect
  • Arousal
  • Emotion
  • Scenes
  • Valence
  • fMRI


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