Contextual information resolves uncertainty about ambiguous facial emotions: Behavioral and magnetoencephalographic correlates
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Threat-of-shockFacial emotion recognitionRecognition biasMEG
Bublatzky, F., Kavcıoğlu, F., Guerra, P., Doll, S., & Junghöfer, M. (2020). Contextual information resolves uncertainty about ambiguous facial emotions: Behavioral and magnetoencephalographic correlates. NeuroImage, 116814. [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116814]
SponsorshipGerman Research Foundation (DFG) BU 3255/1-1 Ju2/024/15 SF58C08
Environmental conditions bias our perception of other peoples’ facial emotions. This becomes quite relevant in potentially threatening situations, when a fellow’s facial expression might indicate potential danger. The present study tested the prediction that a threatening environment biases the recognition of facial emotions. To this end, low- and medium-expressive happy and fearful faces (morphed to 10%, 20%, 30%, or 40% emotional) were presented within a context of instructed threat-of-shock or safety. Self-reported data revealed that instructed threat led to a biased recognition of fearful, but not happy facial expressions. Magnetoencephalographic correlates revealed spatio-temporal clusters of neural network activity associated with emotion recognition and contextual threat/safety in early to mid-latency time intervals in the left parietal cortex, bilateral prefrontal cortex, and the left temporal pole regions. Early parietal activity revealed a double dissociation of face–context information as a function of the expressive level of facial emotions: When facial expressions were difficult to recognize (lowexpressive), contextual threat enhanced fear processing and contextual safety enhanced processing of subtle happy faces. However, for rather easily recognizable faces (medium-expressive) the left hemisphere (parietal cortex, PFC, and temporal pole) showed enhanced activity to happy faces during contextual threat and fearful faces during safety. Thus, contextual settings reduce the salience threshold and boost early face processing of lowexpressive congruent facial emotions, whereas face-context incongruity or mismatch effects drive neural activity of easier recognizable facial emotions. These results elucidate how environmental settings help recognize facial emotions, and the brain mechanisms underlying the recognition of subtle nuances of fear.