Rapid Processing of Neutral and Angry Expressions within Ongoing Facial Stimulus Streams: Is It All about Isolated Facial Features?


Our visual system extracts the emotional meaning of human facial expressions rapidly and automatically. Novel paradigms using fast periodic stimulations have provided insights into the electrophysiological processes underlying emotional content extraction: the regular occurrence of specific identities and/or emotional expressions alone can drive diagnostic brain responses. Consistent with a processing advantage for social cues of threat, we expected angry facial expressions to drive larger responses than neutral expressions. In a series of four EEG experiments, we studied the potential boundary conditions of such an effect: (i) we piloted emotional cue extraction using 9 facial identities and a fast presentation rate of 15 Hz (N = 16); (ii) we reduced the facial identities from 9 to 2, to assess whether (low or high) variability across emotional expressions would modulate brain responses (N = 16); (iii) we slowed the presentation rate from 15 Hz to 6 Hz (N = 31), the optimal presentation rate for facial feature extraction; (iv) we tested whether passive viewing instead of a concurrent task at fixation would play a role (N = 30). We consistently observed neural responses reflecting the rate of regularly presented emotional expressions (5 Hz and 2 Hz at presentation rates of 15 Hz and 6 Hz, respectively). Intriguingly, neutral expressions consistently produced stronger responses than angry expressions, contrary to the predicted processing advantage for threat-related stimuli. Our findings highlight the influence of physical differences across facial identities and emotional expressions.

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