Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

PLoS One. 2014 Nov 11;9(11):e112324. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0112324. eCollection 2014

Thoughts of death modulate psychophysical and cortical responses to threatening stimuli

Existential social psychology studies show that awareness of one's eventual death profoundly influences human cognition and behaviour by inducing defensive reactions against end-of-life related anxiety. Much less is known about the impact of reminders of mortality on brain activity. Therefore we explored whether reminders of mortality influence subjective ratings of intensity and threat of auditory and painful thermal stimuli and the associated electroencephalographic activity. Moreover, we explored whether personality and demographics modulate psychophysical and neural changes related to mortality salience (MS). Following MS induction, a specific increase in ratings of intensity and threat was found for both nociceptive and auditory stimuli. While MS did not have any specific effect on nociceptive and auditory evoked potentials, larger amplitude of theta oscillatory activity related to thermal nociceptive activity was found after thoughts of death were induced. MS thus exerted a top-down modulation on theta electroencephalographic oscillatory amplitude, specifically for brain activity triggered by painful thermal stimuli. This effect was higher in participants reporting higher threat perception, suggesting that inducing a death-related mind-set may have an influence on body-defence related somatosensory representations.

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