Emotion and Perception Lab

Do we see the same? Perceptual and autonomic correlates of sensory processing sensitivity. (2021-2024)

Funding: National Science Center in Poland

Principal investigator: Beata Pacula-LeĊ›niak


How we perceive our environment is crucial in shaping our understanding of the world. There is growing evidence that differences in the processing of visual input occur from the earliest stages of processing, and people do not only react to the same stimulus in a different way but actually perceive something different. The specific patterns of visual attention have been observed e.g. in depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, eating disorders, and addictions. In all these cases different visual attention patterns are considered pathological factors and possible part of the mechanism of disorders persistence. The question emerges, whether differences in visual attention patterns could be observed in the non-clinical population and whether such specific patterns could be beneficial? A construct believed to constitute a base for differences in the processing of sensory input from the earliest stages is sensory sensitivity. Initially, it was defined as the capability to notice subtle differences between the stimuli, that is not caused by the sensory apparatus efficiency (e.g. visual acuity), but rather an ability to more effectively process this sensory input. Sensory sensitivity in this understanding correlates with the lowered threshold for noticing subtle differences, but also with preference to more subtle stimuli and being prone to overstimulation. Due to the latter it was more often considered a disadvantage or even a risk factor for developing a pathology, what might be surprising, as being more aware of the environment - its subtleties and changes - should lead to more tailored responses to different stimuli and better adaptation, and be rather advantageous. The adaptation aspect has been taken into consideration by more contemporary theories of sensory sensitivity (sometimes called in this context ‘environmental sensitivity'), that focus less on the sensory input processing, but rather on the more general disposition to respond to the signals from the environment the certain way, what is observed in different species. One of the theories describing high sensitivity in such frames is Elaine Aron’s Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). According to Aron, SPS is biologically determined, increased susceptibility to all the inputs from the environment, and includes both perceptual sensitivity - being able to notice subtle stimuli and at the same time being more easily overwhelmed by intensive stimuli - and affective sensitivity, i.a. sensitivity to subtle emotional clues. Aron’s approach showed to be effective in the diagnosis and planning of psychological interventions and inspired a large number of scientific studies trying to explain the functioning of HSP. However, the relation between perceptual and emotional sensitivity is still far from clear. While there is evidence that highly sensitive persons have better performance in visual search tasks, are able to notice minor differences between pictures, and have higher reactions to emotional stimuli, that are observed in conscious evaluation results, reaction times, and neuroimaging studies, until now, there were no studies taking into consideration perceptual and emotional aspects of the stimuli at the same time. The proposed grant project aims to disentangle the relationship between the perceptual and emotional intensity of the stimulus and its impact on visual attention, conscious evaluation, and autonomic correlates of affective reaction in the context of sensory processing sensitivity. This is planned to be achieved through 1) examining the impact of perceptual intensity of stimulus on its evaluation on the level of emotional valence and arousal, as well as the autonomic indicators of emotional load (autonomic measures) 2) detailed examination of temporal and spatial characteristics of visual attention to the stimuli varying in emotional load, perceptual intensity, and both aspects combined (eye-tracking experiments) 3) examining the impact of emotional load, perceptual intensity, and both aspects combined on cognitive performance measured at the moment of stimulation (discrimination task) and with delay (memory task). All attentional and psychophysiological correlates will be measured for the groups varying in SPS, hence the potential pragmatic effect of the project will be also determining perceptual and psychophysiological correlates of the Sensory Processing Sensitivity, that may be further used as a more objective measure of the trait.