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Processing of emotional adjectives: Evidence from startle EMG and ERPs


  • Research was supported by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences (Mind and Brain Programme) and the Center for Junior Scientists at the University of Konstanz. We thank Scott Vrana, Steve Crites, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. Many thanks are also extended to Irene Winkler and Alexandra Weiss for help with data collection and analysis.

Address reprint requests to: Cornelia Herbert, Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, Zentrum für Psychiatrie Reichenau (ZPR), Feuersteinstrasse 55, 78479 Reichenau-Lindenbühl, Germany. E-mail:


Affective startle modulation in the electromyographic (EMG), auditory startle evoked potentials, and visually evoked potentials (VEPs) were assessed while subjects evaluated pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral adjectives. Acoustic startle probes were presented at random time points 2.5–4.0 s after word onset. The visual P2 and P3 potentials were generally larger during processing of emotional than of neutral adjectives. In contrast, the late positive component was enhanced and was correlated with larger EMG startle responses and auditory startle evoked potential P3 amplitudes for pleasant words only. During internal cognitive activity, the startle reflex represents a measure of ”processing interrupt.” Thus the startle tone interrupted processing of particularly pleasant adjectives and caused re-alerting to environmental stimuli. Specific effects for pleasant material may arise from a ”positivity offset,” favoring responses to pleasant material at lower arousal levels.