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BMC Neurosci. 2007 Feb 22;8:16.

Explicit attention interferes with selective emotion processing in human extrastriate cortex.

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Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, Germany.



Brain imaging and event-related potential studies provide strong evidence that emotional stimuli guide selective attention in visual processing. A reflection of the emotional attention capture is the increased Early Posterior Negativity (EPN) for pleasant and unpleasant compared to neutral images (approximately 150-300 ms poststimulus). The present study explored whether this early emotion discrimination reflects an automatic phenomenon or is subject to interference by competing processing demands. Thus, emotional processing was assessed while participants performed a concurrent feature-based attention task varying in processing demands.


Participants successfully performed the primary visual attention task as revealed by behavioral performance and selected event-related potential components (Selection Negativity and P3b). Replicating previous results, emotional modulation of the EPN was observed in a task condition with low processing demands. In contrast, pleasant and unpleasant pictures failed to elicit increased EPN amplitudes compared to neutral images in more difficult explicit attention task conditions. Further analyses determined that even the processing of pleasant and unpleasant pictures high in emotional arousal is subject to interference in experimental conditions with high task demand. Taken together, performing demanding feature-based counting tasks interfered with differential emotion processing indexed by the EPN.


The present findings demonstrate that taxing processing resources by a competing primary visual attention task markedly attenuated the early discrimination of emotional from neutral picture contents. Thus, these results provide further empirical support for an interference account of the emotion-attention interaction under conditions of competition. Previous studies revealed the interference of selective emotion processing when attentional resources were directed to locations of explicitly task-relevant stimuli. The present data suggest that interference of emotion processing by competing task demands is a more general phenomenon extending to the domain of feature-based attention. Furthermore, the results are inconsistent with the notion of effortlessness, i.e., early emotion discrimination despite concurrent task demands. These findings implicate to assess the presumed automatic nature of emotion processing at the level of specific aspects rather than considering automaticity as an all-or-none phenomenon.

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