In investigations into the psychological problems abused children face during development and as adults, researchers are beginning to examine brain mechanisms linked to these problems. One clue to the involvement of such mechanisms may be the tendency of abused children to pay inordinate attention to angry or threatening stimuli.
It appears that attention to emotion and the development of psychopathology may be strongly related, as reported in a recent study by psychologist Seth Pollak, PhD, and psychology graduate student Stephanie Tolley-Schell. In the study, presented in the August issue of Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Vol. 112, No. 3), Pollak reports that an increase in brain electrical activity may help explain the kinds of emotion processing differences observed in abused children, as compared with non-abused children. "Studies showed that abused children were using a lot more attention when they were looking at angry faces, but used the same level of attention as non-abused children when looking at happy, or sad, or indifferent faces," Pollak says.
Pollak and his team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed a range of faces with different emotional expressions to 28 children ages 8-11 and then asked them to divert their attention to pressing a button in response to a signal. The researchers measured how long it took children to change their focus and how much electrical brain activity occurred during that change. When maltreated children switched attention away from an angry face, they generated an event-related brain potential averaging 17 microvolts; in comparison, the nonmaltreated children in the study generated an average of 9 microvolts of electrical activity. Importantly, the two groups showed comparable brain activity levels when diverting their attention from happy faces.
"The anger captured so much of [abused children's] attention, the kids failed to notice the additional information they were supposed to attend to," says Pollak.
Why the lingering attention on angry faces? It's likely a way children adapt to an abusive environment, says Pollak. As a result of early maltreatment experiences, children learn to recognize and quickly respond to anger as a way to protect themselves, Pollak speculates. "Abused children's brains are doing exactly what you want a brain to do: They're learning to pay attention to an aspect of their environment that is salient to their survival," he says.
But, when they are out of that dangerous environment, abused kids may overreact or misinterpret angry stimuli and fail to pay attention to other stimuli. "This is why I think maltreated children start having all kinds of problems with social and interpersonal interactions," Pollak says.
Abused children may need to be re-educated about how to react to others' emotional cues and evaluated carefully for psychological problems, Pollak says.
Seth Pollak, PhD, is a 2003 winner of the Boyd McCandless Award for early career achievement from APA's Div. 7 (Developmental).
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