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Interhemispheric ERP asymmetries over inferior parietal cortex reveal differential visual working memory maintenance for fearful versus neutral facial identities


Address correspondence to: Paola Sessa, Department of Developmental Psychology, University of Padova, Via Venezia 8, 5131 Padova, Italy. E-mail:


The goal of the present investigation was to discover whether visual working memory maintenance for faces is modulated by facial expression using event-related potentials (ERPs). Each trial consisted of two sequential arrays, a memory array and a test array, each including either two or four faces with neutral or fearful expressions. The faces were displayed to the left and to the right of a central fixation cross. Two central arrows cued participants to encode one face or two faces displayed on one side of the memory array. The sustained posterior contralateral negativity (SPCN) component of the ERP time-locked to the onset of the memory array was used as an index of visual working memory maintenance. Visual working memory performance was quantified using indexes of memory capacity (Cowan's K and K-iterative), a standard index of sensitivity (d'), and reaction times (RTs). Relative to neutral faces, superior memory and longer change-detection RTs to fearful face identities were observed when two faces were displayed on the cued side of the memory array. Fearful faces elicited an enhanced SPCN relative to neutral faces, especially when only one face was displayed on the cued side of the memory array. These findings suggest increased maintenance in visual working memory of faces with a fearful expression relative to faces with a neutral expression and that the representational format in which fearful faces are stored in memory may be characterized by enhanced resolution relative to that subtended in the maintenance of neutral faces.