Freeze or Forget? Virtual Attack Effects in an Emotional Sternberg Task


  • Thomas Edward Gladwin
  • Matthijs Vink


Emotionally salient stimuli have the ability to disrupt cognitive processing. This kind of disruption involves effects on working memory and may be related to mental health problems. To explore the nature of such emotional interference on working memory, a Virtual Attack Emotional Sternberg Task (VAEST) was used. Neutral faces were presented as distractors and warning signals, which were sometimes followed by a virtual attack, created by having the neutral face turn angry while the image was enlarged. The attack was hypothesized to have one of two effects: to disrupt cognitive processing and thereby increase interference effects, or to terminate a state of freezing and thereby reduce interference effects. The task was successfully completed online by a sample of 59 students. Results clearly show that the virtual attack caused a reduction of interference relative to no-attack trials. The apparent cognitive disruption caused by emotional distractors may thus reflect freezing, which can be reversed by a freeze-terminating stimulus.