Arousal levels strongly affect task performance. Yet, what arousal level is optimal for a task depends on its difficulty. Easy task performance peaks at higher arousal levels, whereas performance on difficult tasks displays an inverted U-shape relationship with arousal, peaking at medium arousal levels, an observation first made by Yerkes and Dodson in 1908. It is commonly proposed that the noradrenergic locus coeruleus system regulates these effects on performance through a widespread release of noradrenaline resulting in changes of cortical gain. This account, however, does not explain why performance decays with high arousal levels only in difficult, but not in simple tasks. Here, we present a mechanistic model that revisits the Yerkes-Dodson effect from a sensory perspective: a deep convolutional neural network augmented with a global gain mechanism reproduced the same interaction between arousal state and task difficulty in its performance. Investigating this model revealed that global gain states differentially modulated sensory information encoding across the processing hierarchy, which explained their differential effects on performance on simple versus difficult tasks. These findings offer a novel hierarchical sensory processing account of how, and why, arousal state affects task performance.
PLoS Computational Biology

Sörensen, L., Bohte, S., Slagter, H., & Scholte, S. (2022). Arousal state affects perceptual decision-making by modulating hierarchical sensory processing in a large-scale visual system model. PLoS Computational Biology, 18(4), e1009976:1–e1009976:25. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1009976