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Cardiac vagal tone is correlated with selective attention to neutral distractors under load


  • The authors would like to thank John J. Sollers III, Sophie Wharton, and Leor Hackel for their thoughtful comments on this research.

Address correspondence to: Gewnhi Park, Department of Psychology, Azusa Pacific University, 901 E. Alosta Ave., Azusa, CA 91702. E-mail:


We examined whether cardiac vagal tone (indexed by heart rate variability, HRV) was associated with the functioning of selective attention under load. Participants were instructed to detect a target letter among letter strings superimposed on either fearful or neutral distractor faces. Under low load, when letter strings consisted of six target letters, there was no difference between people with high and low HRV on task performance. Under high load, when letter strings consisted of one target letter and five nontarget letters, people with high HRV were faster in trials with neutral distractors, but not with fearful distractors. However, people with low HRV were slower in trials with both fearful and neutral distractors. The current research suggests cardiac vagal tone is associated with successful control of selective attention critical for goal-directed behavior, and its impact is greater when fewer cognitive resources are available.