Levels of appraisal: a medial prefrontal role in high-level appraisal of emotional material.
Kalisch R., Wiech K., Critchley HD., Dolan RJ.
Appraisal refers to the evaluation of the meaning of emotional stimuli and is considered causal in the generation of an emotional response. Cognitive neuroscience has paid little attention to a theoretical distinction between low-level appraisal, considered to be automatic and preattentive, and high-level appraisal that requires attentional and working memory resources. To disentangle low-level from high-level appraisal, we varied cognitive load in a concurrent, unrelated working memory task, while anxiety was induced through anticipation of impending pain. Confirming theoretical predictions, we show that anxiety-related activity in dorsal medial prefrontal/rostral anterior cingulate cortex (dorsal MPFC/ACC) is attenuated under high, relative to low, cognitive load. Lateral prefrontal regions previously implicated in reappraisal and cognitive emotion regulation show a similar interaction between anxiety and cognitive load. Critically, there were no changes in physiological and subjective measures of low-level appraisal outcome and emotional response generation as a function of load, allowing us to conclude that MPFC/ACC and lateral PFC activity during anticipatory anxiety reflects high-level appraisal. Our data provide neurobiological evidence for a distinction between low-level and high-level appraisal mechanisms.