Missed targets, reaction times, and arousal are related to trait anxiety and attention to pain during an experimental vigilance task with a painful target

Nichole M. Emerson, Timothy J. Meeker, Joel D. Greenspan, Mark I. Saffer, Claudia M. Campbell, Anna Korzeniewska, Fred A. Lenz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Although hypervigilance may play a role in some clinical pain syndromes, experimental vigilance toward painful stimuli has been studied infrequently. We evaluated vigilance toward pain by using a continuous performance task (CPT), in which subjects responded to moderately intense painful target stimuli, occurring in a train of mildly painful nontargets. We assessed nondetected targets (misses), reaction times (RTs), and psychological activation (tense arousal). During time on task in CPTs of other sensory modalities, there is an increase in misses and RTs (vigilance decrement). We hypothesized that our CPT would influence vigilance performance related to pain, anxiety, and limitation of attentional resources. The results showed a decrement in vigilance over time as misses increased, although RTs were unchanged. While mind-wandering did not influence vigilance performance, intrinsic attention to pain drove both hit RTs and number of misses. This resulted in pain-focused subjects performing worse on the CPT pain task with slower RTs and more misses per block. During the CPT, the change in stimulus salience was related to the change in pain intensity, while pain unpleasantness correlated with tense arousal. CPT performance during experimental vigilance to pain and psychological activation were related to trait anxiety, as measured by the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and neuroticism, as measured by the NEO five factor inventory. Trait anxiety and neuroticism may play important roles in an individual's predisposition to dwell on pain and interpret pain as threatening. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Subjects detected moderately painful target stimuli in a train of mildly painful nontarget stimuli, which resulted in vigilance performance metrics including missed targets, reaction times, and psychological activation. These performance metrics were related to intrinsic attention to pain and trait anxiety. Subjects with high trait anxiety and neuroticism scores, with a predisposition to attend to pain, had greater tense arousal and poorer vigilance performance, which may be important psychological aspects of vigilance to pain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)462-472
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020



  • Human
  • Neuroticism
  • Pain
  • Sustained attention
  • Trait anxiety
  • Vigilance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology

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