Neurophysiological Traces of Interpersonal Pain: How Emotional Autobiographical Memories Affect Event-Related Potentials

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Abstract

The automatic, involuntary reactivation of disturbing emotional memories, for example, of interpersonal pain, causes psychological discomfort and is central to many psychopathologies. This study aimed at elucidating the automatic brain processes underlying emotional autobiographical memories by investigating the neurophysiological dynamics within the first second after memory reactivation. Pictures of different individualized familiar faces served as cues for different specific emotional autobiographical memories, for example, for memories of interpersonal pain and grievances or for memories of appreciation in interpersonal relationships. Nineteen subjects participated in a passive face-viewing task while multichannel electroencephalogram was recorded. Analyses of event-related potentials demonstrated that emotional memories elicited an early posterior negativity and a stronger late positive potential, which tended to be particularly enhanced for painful memories. Source estimations attributed this stronger activation to networks including the posterior cingulate and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices. The findings suggest that the reactivation of emotional autobiographical memories involves privileged automatic attention at perceptual processing stages, and an enhanced recruitment of neural network activity at a postperceptual stage sensitive to emotional-motivational processing.

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