Emotion theory holds that unpleasant events prime withdrawal actions, whereas pleasant events prime approach actions. Recent studies have suggested that passive viewing of emotion eliciting images results in postural adjustments, which become manifest as changes in body center of pressure (COP) trajectories. From those studies it appears that posture is modulated most when viewing pictures with negative valence. The present experiment was conducted to test the hypothesis that pictures with negative valence have a greater impact on postural control than neutral or positive ones. Thirty-four healthy subjects passively viewed a series of emotion eliciting images, while standing either in a bipedal or unipedal stance on a force plate. The images were adopted from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS). We analysed mean and variability of the COP and the length of the associated sway path as a function of emotion.
The mean position of the COP was unaffected by emotion, but unipedal stance resulted in overall greater body sway than bipedal stance. We found a modest effect of emotion on COP: viewing pictures of mutilation resulted in a smaller sway path, but only in unipedal stance. We obtained valence and arousal ratings of the images with an independent sample of viewers. These subjects rated the unpleasant images as significantly less pleasant than neutral images, and the pleasant images as significantly more pleasant than neutral images. However, the subjects rated the images as overall less pleasant and less arousing than viewers in a closely comparable American study, pointing to unknown differences in viewer characteristics.
Overall, viewing emotion eliciting images had little effect on body sway. Our finding of a reduction in sway path length when viewing pictures of mutilation was indicative of a freezing strategy, i.e. fear bradycardia. The results are consistent with current knowledge about the neuroanatomical organization of the emotion system and the neural control of behavior.