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Slow biasing of processing resources in early visual cortex is preceded by emotional cue extraction in emotion–attention competition



In our previous studies on competition for attentional processing resources in early visual cortex between a foreground task and distracting emotional background images we found that emotional background images withdraw attentional resources from the foreground task after about 400 ms. Costs in behavioral data and a significant reduction of the steady state visual evoked potential (SSVEP) amplitude that was elicited by the foreground task lasted for several hundred milliseconds. We speculated that the differential effect in SSVEP amplitudes is preceded by the extraction of the emotional cue. Event related potential (ERP) studies to emotional and neutral complex images identified an early posterior negativity (EPN) as a robust neural signature of emotional cue extraction. The late positive potential (LPP) was related to in-depth processing of the emotional image. We extracted ERPs that were evoked by the onset of background images concurrently with the SSVEP that was elicited by the foreground task. Emotional compared to neutral background pictures evoked a more negative EPN at about 190 ms and a more positive LPP at about 700 ms after image onset. SSVEP amplitudes became significantly smaller with emotional background images after about 400 ms lasting for several hundred ms. Interestingly, we found no significant correlations between the three components, indicating that they act independently. Source localizations resulted in nonoverlapping cortical generators. Results suggest a cascade of perceptual processes: Extraction of the emotional cue preceded biasing of attentional resources away from the foreground task towards the emotional image for an evaluation of the picture content. Hum Brain Mapp 35:1477–1490, 2014. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.