Processing of emotional expression in subliminal and low-visibility images
Date: 14 May 2012
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
PhD in Psychology
This thesis investigated the processing of emotional stimuli by the visual system, and how the processing of emotions interacts with visual awareness. Emotions have been given ‘special’ status by some previous research, with evidence that the processing of emotions may be relatively independent of striate cortex, and less affected by ...
This thesis investigated the processing of emotional stimuli by the visual system, and how the processing of emotions interacts with visual awareness. Emotions have been given ‘special’ status by some previous research, with evidence that the processing of emotions may be relatively independent of striate cortex, and less affected by disruption to awareness than processing of emotionally neutral images. Yet the extent to which emotions are ‘special’ remains questionable. This thesis focused on the processing of emotional stimuli when activity in V1 was disrupted using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and whether emotional properties of stimuli can be reliably discriminated, or affect subsequent responses, when visibility is low. Two of the experiments reported in this thesis disrupted activity in V1 using TMS, Experiment 1 with single pulses in an online design, and Experiment 2 with theta burst stimulation in an offline design. Experiment 1 found that a single pulse of TMS 70-130 ms following a presentation of a body posture image disrupted processing of neutral but not emotional postures in an area of the visual field that corresponded to the disruption. Experiment 2 did not find any convincing evidence of disruption to processing of neutral or emotional faces. From Experiment 1 it would appear that emotional body posture images were relatively unaffected by TMS, and appeared to be robust to disruption to V1. Experiment 2 did not add to this as there was no evidence of disruption in any condition. Experiments 3 and 4 used visual masking to disrupt awareness of emotional and neutral faces. Both experiments used a varying interval between the face and the mask stimuli to systematically vary the visibility of the faces. Overall, the shortest SOA produced the lowest level of visibility, and this level of visibility was arguably outside awareness. In Experiment 3, participants’ ability to discriminate properties of emotional faces under low visibility conditions was greater than their ability to discriminate the orientation of the face. This was despite the orientation discrimination being much easier at higher levels of visibility. Experiment 4 used a gender discrimination task, with emotion providing a redundant cue to the decision (present half of the time). Despite showing a strong linear masking function for the neutral faces, there was no evidence of any emotion advantage. Overall, Experiment 3 gave some evidence of an emotion advantage under low visibility conditions, but this effect was fairly small and not replicated in Experiment 4. Finally, Experiments 5-8 used low visibility emotional faces to prime responses to subsequent emotional faces (Experiments 5 and 6) or words (Experiments 7 and 8). In Experiments 5, 7 and 8 there was some evidence of emotional priming effects, although these effects varied considerably across the different designs used. There was evidence for meaningful processing of the emotional prime faces, but this processing only led to small and variable effects on subsequent responses. In summary, this thesis found some evidence that the processing of emotional stimuli was relatively robust to disruption in V1 with TMS. Attempts to find evidence for robust processing of emotional stimuli when disrupted with backwards masking was less successful, with at best mixed results from discrimination tasks and priming experiments. Whether emotional stimuli are processed by a separate route(s) in the brain is still very much open to debate, but the findings of this thesis offers small and inconsistent evidence for a brain network for processing emotions that is relatively independent of V1 and visual awareness. The network and nature of brain structures involved in the processing of subliminal and low visibility processing of emotions remains somewhat elusive.
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