The role of spatial frequency information in the decoding of facial expressions of pain: a novel hybrid task

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Spatial frequency (SF) information contributes to the recognition of facial expressions, including pain. Low-SF encodes facial configuration and structure and often dominates over high-SF information, which encodes fine details in facial features. This low-SF preference has not been investigated within the context of pain. In this study, we investigated whether perpetual preference differences exist for low-SF and high-SF pain information. A novel hybrid expression paradigm was used in which 2 different expressions, one containing low-SF information and the other high-SF information, were combined in a facial hybrid. Participants are instructed to identify the core expression contained within the hybrid, allowing for the measurement of SF information preference. Three experiments were conducted (46 participants in each) that varied the expressions within the hybrid faces: respectively pain-neutral, pain-fear, and pain-happiness. In order to measure the temporal aspects of image processing, each hybrid image was presented for 33, 67, 150, and 300 ms. As expected, identification of pain and other expressions was dominated by low-SF information across the 3 experiments. The low-SF preference was largest when the presentation of hybrid faces was brief and reduced as the presentation duration increased. A sex difference was also found in experiment 1. For women, the low-SF preference was dampened by high-SF pain information, when viewing low-SF neutral expressions. These results not only confirm the role that SF information has in the recognition of pain in facial expressions but suggests that in some situations, there may be sex differences in how pain is communicated.

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