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Attention shifting and subliminal cueing under high attentional load

an EEG study using emotional faces

Tipura, Edaa,,b,,c; Renaud, Olivierb,,c; Pegna, Alan J.b,,d

doi: 10.1097/WNR.0000000000001349
Clinical Neuroscience

Emotional expressions and attentional processes interact such that emotion increases perceptual sensitivity in modality-specific brain areas leading to more efficient processing of the stimulus. In the current study, we asked the question of whether the emotional expressions can be processed subliminally when faces are attended but the emotional expression is irrelevant. We presented angry and neutral male and female faces supraliminally and subliminally to participants in an attention-shifting paradigm. Emotional expression was irrelevant to the task, but the gender of the face was predictive of the location of a subsequent target. Analysis of reaction times revealed that, in the supraliminal condition, targets appearing at validly cued locations produced quicker responses than targets at invalidly cued locations. Target-locked event-related potentials (ERPs) confirmed this result and showed that attention selection elicited higher responses at attended locations, as reflected by the N1 component. However, voluntary attention shifting was not triggered when the cue was not consciously perceived. No effects of emotion were observed following target presentation, suggesting that the high attentional load required by the experiment may have prevented the processing of emotion for undetectable faces, as demonstrated by the fact that, following cue onset, the N170 was modulated by emotion in supraliminal trials only. We therefore show that emotional expressions cannot be processed without awareness when faces are attended, but the emotional expression is irrelevant.

aDepartment of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

bFaculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences

cMethodology and Data Analysis, Department of Psychology, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland

dSchool of Psychology, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Received 31 August 2019 Accepted 3 September 2019

Correspondence to Eda Tipura, PhD, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, 40 boulevard du Pont-d’Arve, CH-1211 Genève 4, Switzerland, Tel: +41 22 379 95 78; fax: +41 22 379 91 60; e-mail:

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