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Facial expression primes and implicit regulation of negative emotion

Yoon, HeungSik; Kim, Shin Ah; Kim, Sang Hee

doi: 10.1097/WNR.0000000000000383

An individual’s responses to emotional information are influenced not only by the emotional quality of the information, but also by the context in which the information is presented. We hypothesized that facial expressions of happiness and anger would serve as primes to modulate subjective and neural responses to subsequently presented negative information. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a functional MRI study in which the brains of healthy adults were scanned while they performed an emotion-rating task. During the task, participants viewed a series of negative and neutral photos, one at a time; each photo was presented after a picture showing a face expressing a happy, angry, or neutral emotion. Brain imaging results showed that compared with neutral primes, happy facial primes increased activation during negative emotion in the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which are typically implicated in conflict detection and implicit emotion control, respectively. Conversely, relative to neutral primes, angry primes activated the right middle temporal gyrus and the left supramarginal gyrus during the experience of negative emotion. Activity in the amygdala in response to negative emotion was marginally reduced after exposure to happy primes compared with angry primes. Relative to neutral primes, angry facial primes increased the subjectively experienced intensity of negative emotion. The current study results suggest that prior exposure to facial expressions of emotions modulates the subsequent experience of negative emotion by implicitly activating the emotion-regulation system.

Department of Brain and Cognitive Engineering, Korea University, Seoul, Republic of Korea

Correspondence to Sang Hee Kim, PhD, Department of Brain and Cognitive Engineering, Science Library 604B, Korea University, Anam-dong 5ga, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul 136-713, Republic of Korea Tel: +82 2 3290 5923; fax: +82 2 3290 3586; e-mail:

Received April 10, 2015

Accepted April 28, 2015

© 2015 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins