Attention Bias Modification: Research and Advancements

Author: Celeste Nachnani

Editor: Nadia Hall


Everyone experiences anxiety throughout their life. Under amplified stress, even the smallest task can turn into someone’s most daunting nightmare. From where does all this anxiety start? What do our brains pick up on that causes us to go into panic mode? The development of Attention Bias Modification, a technique gaining prevalence in the psychology and neuroscience world, may have the answers to these questions and provide substantial progress in helping people overcome their anxiety.


Attention Bias Modification is a form of computer-based attention training that modifies the direction of a person’s attention in the presence of what may be perceived as a threat in the environment (Fitzgerald, 2014). We have all seen that Pinterest quote that goes, “if it won’t matter in 5 years, don’t spend 5 minutes thinking about it,” or “was it a bad day, or was it a bad five minutes that you milked all day?” Unfortunately, our brains are just more susceptible to honing in on negativity around us. As a Verywell Mind article explains, due to an evolutionary trait, humans have had to be alert towards threats for their survival since the beginning of time. Even infants pay more attention to negative facial expressions or tones (Cherry, 2010). Negative bias is ingrained in us. Attention Bias Modification allows people struggling with anxiety to disengage and shift their attention away from negative stimuli in the environment, rather than be consumed by them (May, 2013).


In animal model research, attention biases place limited demands on cortically based networks, neural networks in the brain which transmit messages. Cortically based networks facilitate electrical activity, even when there isn’t any sensory stimulation. Attention Bias Modification Training targets cortically based networks so people are not naturally overwhelmed by stimulation and are not overpowered by their threat bias (Hakamata et al., 2010).


In the 1960s, psychologist Gordon Bower introduced a network model of memory and emotion. In a memory network, an emotion is represented as a node, which when activated, activates other nodes that resemble similar emotions. Therefore, if a negative, anxious node is activated, this may trigger a larger response of anxiety due to both implicit bias toward threats and activation of a series of nodes (Mitch, 2021).


Ways in which Attention Bias Modification techniques are carried out include the Dot-Probe Task, Visual Search Task, Eye Tracking, Modified Stroop Task, Spatial Resolution, and Temporal Resolution.


The Dot-Probe Task- the most common form of Attention Bias Modification Training- consists of the participant locating a non-emotional object on a screen after both a threatening stimulus and a non-threatening stimulus flash at once in different locations. As can be seen in Figure 1, the non-emotional object appears where the threatening stimulus was. Treatment is administered based on the participant’s response to the non-emotional object and tendency to not disengage from the threatening stimulus (Hakamata et al., 2010).


Figure 1

Dot-Probe Task



Note. (Anderson, 2016). Threatening stimulus: image of drug needle, labeled as distractor on cue display. Non-threatening stimulus: image of keys, labeled as neutral stimulus on cue display. Non-emotional object: dot on target/probe display.


Another form of Attention Bias Modification Training is eye tracking, which detects where the participant’s vision directs to on the computer screen. Where the vision impulsively directs to indicates how the participant reacts to stimuli and whether or not the participant is able to disengage from non-emotional objects (Hakamata et al, 2010).


In a meta-analysis conducted by scientists Yuko Hakamata, PhD, Shmuel Lissek, PhD, Yair Bar-Haim, PhD, Jennifer C. Britton, PhD, Nathan Fox, PhD, Ellen Leibenluft, MD, Monique Ernst, MD, PhD, and Daniel S. Pine, MD, Attention Bias Modification Training was found to reduce participants’ anxiety significantly more than control training does (2010). In other words, the results of this meta-analysis provide evidence that Attention Bias Modification Training is effective at reducing people’s anxiety. After training, participants were more inclined to start disengaging with a threat.


As research into Attention Bias Modification continues, Attention Bias Modification Training may become an increasingly common treatment option for anxiety, alongside other pre-existing treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy. This treatment will allow people to shift their focus from what is causing them anxiety towards something more productive, such as a plan of action for any conflict they are facing. Attention Bias Modification alongside other advancements in psychology will help to enrich our understanding of mental health and ways to improve it.




References

Anderson, B. (2016). What is abnormal about addiction-related attentional biases? Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 167, 8-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.08.002

Cherry, K. (2020, April 29). Negative Bias: Why We’re Hardwired for Negativity. Verywell Mind. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618

Fitzgerald, A. (2014, October 21). Attention Bias Modification Training for Young People. ClinicalTrials.gov. Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02270671

Hakamata, Y., Lissek, S., Bar-Haim, Y., Britton, J. C., Fox, N. A., Leibenluft, E., Ernst, M., & Pine, D. S. (2010). Attention bias modification treatment: a meta-analysis toward the establishment of novel treatment for anxiety. Biological psychiatry, 68(11), 982–990. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.07.021

May, J. (2013). Attentional Biases in Craving. In P. Miller (Ed.), Principles of Addiction (pp.. 435-443). Academic Press.

Mitch, W. (2021, July 13). Bowers network theory. Mitch Medical Healthcare. Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://www.mitchmedical.us/cognition-emotion/bowers-network-theory.html


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