Temporospatial analysis of explicit and implicit processing of negative content during word comprehension

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Although divergences between explicit and implicit processing of affective content during word comprehension have been reported, the underlying nature of those differences remains in dispute. Prior studies focused on either the timing or the spatial location of the effects. The present study examined the precise dynamics of the processing of negative words when attention is directed to affective content or to non-emotional properties by capitalizing on fine temporal resolution of the event-related potentials (ERPs) and recent advances in source localization. Tasks were used that required accessing knowledge about different semantic properties of negative and neutral words. In the direct task, participants’ attention was directed towards emotional information. By contrast, subjects had to decide whether the words’ referent could be touched or not in the indirect task. Regardless of being processed explicitly or implicitly, negative compared to neutral words were associated with more errors and greater key pressure responses. Electrophysiologically, affective processing was reflected in larger amplitudes to negative words in a late positive component (LPC) at the scalp level, and in increased activity in the pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA) at the voxel level. Interestingly, an interaction between emotion and type of task was observed. Negative words were associated with more errors, larger anterior distributed LPC amplitudes and increased activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) in the direct compared to the indirect task. This LPC effect was modulated by the concreteness of the words. Finally, a task effect was found in a posterior negativity around 220 ms, with enhanced amplitudes to words in the direct compared to the indirect task. The present results suggest that negative information contained in written language is processed irrespective of controlled attention is directed to it or not, but that this processing is reinforced in the former case.

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