Threat-evoked anxiety disrupts spatial working memory performance: an attentional account

Aureliu Lavric*, Gina Rippon, Jeremy R. Gray

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is proposed that threat-evoked anxiety and spatial Working Memory (WM) rely on a common visuospatial attention mechanism. A prediction of this hypothesis is that spatial but not verbal WM should be disrupted in conditions of threat anxiety. Participants performed verbal and spatial n-back WM tasks in the presence or absence of threat of shock (shocks were not delivered). The presence of anxiety was assessed via heart rate recordings and self-report. Both measures clearly distinguished between WM blocks associated with threat of shock (Threat) and blocks, in which threat was absent (Safety). Performance on the spatial WM task was impaired in Threat relative to Safety. Furthermore, the more anxiety participants reported and the higher their heart rate in Threat compared to Safety, the more impaired was their spatial WM performance. This effect was not observed for verbal WM. The results indicate selective disruption of spatial WM performance by threat-evoked anxiety, interpreted in terms of more overlap in visuospatial attention between anxiety and spatial WM vs. anxiety and verbal WM.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)489-504
Number of pages16
JournalCognitive Therapy and Research
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2003


  • anxiety
  • threat
  • verbal and spatial working memory
  • visuospatial attention


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