Linking emotional reactivity between laboratory tasks and immersive environments using behavior and physiology

Heather Roy, Nick Wasylyshyn, Derek P. Spangler, Katherine R. Gamble, Debbie Patton, Justin R. Brooks, Javier O. Garcia, Jean M. Vettel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


An event or experience can induce different emotional responses between individuals, including strong variability based on task parameters or environmental context. Physiological correlates of emotional reactivity, as well as related constructs of stress and anxiety, have been found across many physiological metrics, including heart rate and brain activity. However, the interdependances and interactions across contexts and between physiological systems are not well understood. Here, we recruited military and law enforcement to complete two experimental sessions across two different days. In the laboratory session, participants viewed high-arousal negative images while brain activity electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded from the scalp, and functional connectivity was computed during the task and used as a predictor of emotional response during the other experimental session. In an immersive simulation session, participants performed a shoot-don’t-shoot scenario while heart rate electrocardiography (ECG) was recorded. Our analysis examined the relationship between the sessions, including behavioral responses (emotional intensity ratings, task performance, and self-report anxiety) and physiology from different modalities [brain connectivity and heart rate variability (HRV)]. Results replicated previous research and found that behavioral performance was modulated within-session based on varying levels of emotional intensity in the laboratory session (t(24) = 4.062, p < 0.0005) and stress level in the simulation session (Z = 2.45, corrected p-value = 0.0142). Both behavior and physiology demonstrated cross-session relationships. Behaviorally, higher intensity ratings in the laboratory was related to higher self-report anxiety in the immersive simulation during low-stress (r = 0.465, N = 25, p = 0.019) and high-stress (r = 0.400, N = 25, p = 0.047) conditions. Physiologically, brain connectivity in the theta band during the laboratory session significantly predicted low-frequency HRV in the simulation session (p < 0.05); furthermore, a frontoparietal connection accounted for emotional intensity ratings during the attend laboratory condition (r = 0.486, p = 0.011) and self-report anxiety after the high-stress simulation condition (r = 0.389, p = 0.035). Interestingly, the predictive power of the brain activity occurred only for the conditions where participants had higher levels of emotional reactivity, stress, or anxiety. Taken together, our findings describe an integrated behavioral and physiological characterization of emotional reactivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number54
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - Feb 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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