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J Neuropsychol. 2008 Mar;2(Pt 1):165-81. doi: 10.1348/174866407X245411.

Links between rapid ERP responses to fearful faces and conscious awareness.

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  • 1School of Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK.


To study links between rapid ERP responses to fearful faces and conscious awareness, a backward-masking paradigm was employed where fearful or neutral target faces were presented for different durations and were followed by a neutral face mask. Participants had to report target face expression on each trial. When masked faces were clearly visible (200 ms duration), an early frontal positivity, a later more broadly distributed positivity, and a temporo-occipital negativity were elicited by fearful relative to neutral faces, confirming findings from previous studies with unmasked faces. These emotion-specific effects were also triggered when masked faces were presented for only 17 ms, but only on trials where fearful faces were successfully detected. When masked faces were shown for 50 ms, a smaller but reliable frontal positivity was also elicited by undetected fearful faces. These results demonstrate that early ERP responses to fearful faces are linked to observers' subjective conscious awareness of such faces, as reflected by their perceptual reports. They suggest that frontal brain regions involved in the construction of conscious representations of facial expression are activated at very short latencies.


Consciousness; emotion; event-related brain potentials; face processing; visual masking

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