Exogenous attention to facial vs non-facial emotional visual stimuli

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The capacity of the two types of non-symbolic emotional stimuli most widely used in research on affective processes, faces and (non-facial) emotional scenes, to capture exogenous attention, was compared. Negative, positive and neutral faces and affective scenes were presented as distracters to 34 participants while they carried out a demanding digit categorization task. Behavioral (reaction times and number of errors) and electrophysiological (event-related potentials—ERPs) indices of exogenous attention were analyzed. Globally, facial expressions and emotional scenes showed similar capabilities to attract exogenous attention. Electrophysiologically, attentional capture was reflected in the P2a component of ERPs at the scalp level, and in left precentral areas at the source level. Negatively charged faces and scenes elicited maximal P2a/precentral gyrus activity. In the case of scenes, this negativity bias was also evident at the behavioral level. Additionally, a specific effect of facial distracters was observed in N170 at the scalp level, and in the fusiform gyrus and inferior parietal lobule at the source level. This effect revealed maximal attention to positive expressions. This facial positivity offset was also observed at the behavioral level. Taken together, the present results indicate that faces and non-facial scenes elicit partially different and, to some extent, complementary exogenous attention mechanisms.

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