Processing of task-irrelevant emotional faces impacted by implicit sequence learning

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Attentional load may be increased by task-relevant attention, such as difficulty of task, or task-irrelevant attention, such as an unexpected light-spot in the screen. Several studies have focused on the influence of task-relevant attentional load on task-irrelevant emotion processing. In this study, we used event-related potentials to examine the impact of task-irrelevant attentional load on task-irrelevant expression processing. Eighteen participants identified the color of a word (i.e. the color Stroop task) while a picture of a fearful or a neutral face was shown in the background. The task-irrelevant attentional load was increased by regularly presented congruence trials (congruence between the color and the meaning of the word) in the regular condition because implicit sequence learning was induced. We compared the task-irrelevant expression processing between the regular condition and the random condition (the congruence and incongruence trials were presented randomly). Behaviorally, reaction times for the fearful face condition were faster than the neutral faces condition in the random condition, whereas no significant difference was found in the regular condition. The event-related potential results indicated enhanced positive amplitudes in P2, N2, and P3 components relative to neutral faces in the random condition. In comparison, only P2 differed significantly for the two types of expressions in the regular condition. The study showed that attentional load increased by implicit sequence learning influenced the late processing of task-irrelevant expression.

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