Rapid Fear Detection Relies on High Spatial Frequencies

Timo Stein*, Kiley Seymour, Martin N. Hebart, Philipp Sterzer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

68 Citations (Scopus)


Signals of threat-such as fearful faces-are processed with priority and have privileged access to awareness. This fear advantage is commonly believed to engage a specialized subcortical pathway to the amygdala that bypasses visual cortex and processes predominantly low-spatial-frequency information but is largely insensitive to high spatial frequencies. We tested visual detection of low- and high-pass-filtered fearful and neutral faces under continuous flash suppression and sandwich masking, and we found consistently that the fear advantage was specific to high spatial frequencies. This demonstrates that rapid fear detection relies not on low- but on high-spatial-frequency information-indicative of an involvement of cortical visual areas. These findings challenge the traditional notion that a subcortical pathway to the amygdala is essential for the initial processing of fear signals and support the emerging view that the cerebral cortex is crucial for the processing of ecologically relevant signals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)566-574
Number of pages9
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • consciousness
  • continuous flash suppression
  • facial expressions
  • fear
  • fear detection
  • fearful faces
  • sandwich masking
  • spatial frequency
  • visual perception

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  • Cite this

    Stein, T., Seymour, K., Hebart, M. N., & Sterzer, P. (2014). Rapid Fear Detection Relies on High Spatial Frequencies. Psychological Science, 25(2), 566-574. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613512509