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Presentation Time: 9:25-9:45
Home University: UNC-Chapel Hill
Research Mentor: Kristen Lindquist, Psychology and Neuroscience
Program: SMART
Research Title: Amygdala activation during negative emotional experiences

Salience detection facilitates scanning and learning from environments, enabling organisms to focus on relevant stimuli in their visual field for the purpose of survival. Although the brain circuits that underlie this process center around the amygdala, the psychological mechanisms that facilitate such process are poorly understood. Ambiguity has been shown to drive salience detection, and the amygdala has been shown to activate during various emotional experiences, including fear and sadness. Here, we merge these previous findings by testing whether psychological features (appraisals, including ambiguity of a situation) characterize amygdala activity related to instances of fear and sadness. Using evocative stimuli, fear and sadness were induced in forty-five participants while undergoing fMRI; half the participants were White Americans, while the other half were Chinese Natives. A separate and independent American sample rated the stimuli on ten features, or appraisals (e.g., dangerousness of the situation, ambiguity of the situation). Through hierarchical linear regression, we find that ambiguity has a robust effect on bilateral amygdala activation related to experiences of fear and sadness above and beyond the other appraisals. Moreover, we find this effect holds across both Chinese and American participants, suggesting ambiguity during instances of fear and sadness may recruit amygdala activation similarly across the cultural groups. Overall, our results suggest ambiguity in negative emotional experiences renders them salient to the human mind.