Modulation of the Startle Reflex during Brief and Sustained Exposure to Emotional Pictures


Previous investigations using pictures to elicit an emotional response have shown that the startle reflex habituates over time due to decreased excitation in the obligatory startle processing pathway, an effect that is independent of emotion modulation aspects of the startle response. However, in some instances, startle magnitude has been selectively potentiated during sustained exposure to passively viewed unpleasant pictures. This study assessed startle modulation during brief, alternating and sustained exposure to emotional pictures. Self-reported ratings of emotion were collected online with picture viewing to determine if any change in startle magnitude was observable in explicit emotional responses. Self-reported ratings of pleasantness and arousal were no different across the brief and sustained picture presentations. However, a significant main effect (independent from emotion category) of presentation condition was found for startle magnitudes, showing that, contrary to previous research involving passive picture viewing, mean startle magnitudes during sustained exposure were reduced relative to brief exposure. These findings are likely the result of a general habituation of the startle reflex in the obligatory pathway. The findings are also discussed in terms of the effect of the concurrent emotion rating task, which may have differently affected the cumulative effects of emotion exposure compared to passive picture viewing.

Share and Cite:

Mavratzakis, A. , Molloy, E. & Walla, P. (2013). Modulation of the Startle Reflex during Brief and Sustained Exposure to Emotional Pictures. Psychology, 4, 389-395. doi: 10.4236/psych.2013.44056.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Arthur-Kelly, M., Lyons, G. S., & Walla, P. (2013). Toward improved ways of knowing children with Profound Multiple Disabilities (PMD): Introducing startle reflex modulation. Developmental Neurohabilitation, in press.
[2] Bradley, M., Cuthbert, B., & Lang, P. (1996). Picture media and emotion: Effects of a sustained affective context. Psychophysiology, 33, 662-670. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.1996.tb02362.x
[3] Bradley, M., & Lang, P. (1994). Measuring emotion: The self-assessment manikin and the semantic differential. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 25, 49-59. doi:10.1016/0005-7916(94)90063-9
[4] Bradley, M., Lang, P., & Cuthbert, B. (1993). Emotion, novelty, and the startle reflex: Habituation in humans. Behavioral Neuroscience, 107, 970-980. doi:10.1037/0735-7044.107.6.970
[5] Codispoti, M., Bradley, M. M., & Lang, P. J. (2001). Affective reactions to briefly presented pictures. Psychophysiology, 38, 474-478. doi:10.1111/1469-8986.3830474
[6] Cuthbert, B., Bradley, M., & Lang, P. (1996). Probing picture perception: Activation and emotion. Psychophysiology, 33, 103-111. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.1996.tb02114.x
[7] Ferrari, V., Bradley, M., Codispoti, M., & Lang, P. (2010). Repetitive exposure: Brain and reflex measures of emotion and attention. Psychophysiology, 47, 1-8.
[8] Filion, D., Dawson, M., & Schell, A. (1998). The psychological significance of human startle eyeblink modification: A review. Biological Psychology, 47, 1-43. doi:10.1016/S0301-0511(97)00020-3
[9] Geiser, M., & Walla, P. (2011). Objective measures of emotion during virtual walks through urban environments. Applied Sciences, 1, 1-11.
[10] Grahl, A., Greiner, U., & Walla, P. (2012). Bottle-shape elicits genderspecific emotion: A startle reflex modulation study. Psychology, 3, 548-554. doi:10.4236/psych.2012.37081
[11] Grüsser, S., W ölfling, K., M örsen, C., Kathmann, N., & Flor, H. (2007). The influence of current mood on affective startle modulation. Experimental Brain Research, 177, 122-128. doi:10.1007/s00221-006-0653-x
[12] Koller, M., & Walla, P. (2012). Measuring affective information processing in information systems and consumer research-introducing startle reflex modulation. ICIS Proceedings, 33rd International Conference on Information Systems, Orlando, FL.
[13] Lang, P., Bradley, M., & Cuthbert, B. (2005). International affective picture system (IAPS): Instruction manual and affective ratings. Gainesville, FL: The Center for Research in Psychophysiology, University of Florida.
[14] Liberzon, I., Taylor, S. F., Fig, L. M., Decker, L. R., Koeppe, R. A., & Minoshima, S. (2000). Limbic Activation and Psychophysiologic Responses to Aversive Visual Stimuli: Interaction with Cognitive Task. Neuropsychopharmacology, 23, 508-516. doi:10.1016/S0893-133X(00)00157-3
[15] Oldfield, R. (1971). The assessment and analysis of handedness: The Edinburgh inventory. Neuropsychologia, 9, 97-113. doi:10.1016/0028-3932(71)90067-4
[16] Russell, J., Weiss, A., & Mendelsohn, G. (1989). Affect grid: A singleitem scale of pleasure and arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 493-502. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.3.493
[17] Smith, J. C., Bradley, M., & Lang, P. (2005). State anxiety and affective physiology: Effects of sustained exposure to affective pictures. Biological Psychology, 69, 247-260. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.09.001
[18] Smith, J. C., Löw, A., Bradley, M. M., & Lang, P. J. (2006). Rapid picture presentation and affective engagement. Emotion, 6, 208. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.6.2.208
[19] Sutton, S., Davidson, R., Donzella, B., Irwin, W., & Dottl, D. (1997). Manipulating affective state using extended picture presentations. Psychophysiology, 34, 217. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.1997.tb02135.x
[20] Walla, P., Rosser, L., Scharfenberger, J., Duregger, C., & Bosshard, S. (2013a). Emotion ownership: Different effects on explicit ratings and implicit responses. Psychology, 4, 213-216.
[21] Walla, P., Richter, M., Färber, S., Leodolter, U., & Bauer, H. (2010). Food evoked changes in humans: Startle response modulation and Event-Related Potentials (ERPs). Journal of Psychophysiology, 24, 25-32. doi:10.1027/0269-8803/a000003
[22] Walla, P., & Panksepp, J. (2013). Neuroimaging helps to clarify brain affective processing without necessarily clarifying emotions, novel frontiers of advanced neuroimaging. doi:10.5772/51761
[23] Walla, P., Mavratzakis, A., & Bosshard, S. (2013b). Neuroimaging for the affective brain sciences, and its role in advancing consumer neuroscience, novel frontiers of advanced neuroimaging. doi:10.5772/51042
[24] Wangelin, B. C., Low, A., McTeague, L. M., Bradley, M. M., & Lang, P. J. (2011). Aversive picture processing: Effects of a concurrent task on sustained defensive system engagement. Psychophysiology, 48, 112-116. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.2010.01041.x
[25] Wright, C., Fischer, H., Whalen, P., McInerney, S., Shin, L., & Rauch, S. (2001). Differential prefrontal cortex and amygdala habituation to repeatedly presented emotional stimuli. Neuroreport, 12, 379. doi:10.1097/00001756-200102120-00039
[26] Yeomans, J., & Frankland, P. (1995). The acoustic startle reflex: Neurons and connections. Brain Research Reviews, 21, 301-314. doi:10.1016/0165-0173(96)00004-5
[27] Zald, D. (2003). The human amygdala and the emotional evaluation of sensory stimuli. Brain Research Reviews, 41, 88-123. doi:10.1016/S0165-0173(02)00248-5

Copyright © 2023 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.