Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Electrophysiological Differences in the Processing of Affective Information in Words and Pictures

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Electrophysiological Differences in the Processing of Affective Information in Words and Pictures

Article excerpt

It is generally assumed that affective picture viewing is related to higher levels of physiological arousal than is the reading of emotional words. However, this assertion is based mainly on studies in which the processing of either words or pictures has been investigated under heterogenic conditions. Positive, negative, relaxing, neutral, and background (stimulus fragments) words and pictures were presented to subjects in two experiments under equivalent experimental conditions. In Experiment 1, neutral words elicited an enhanced late positive component (LPC) that was associated with an increased difficulty in discriminating neutral from background stimuli. In Experiment 2, high-arousing pictures elicited an enhanced early negativity and LPC that were related to a facilitated processing for these stimuli. Thus, it seems that under some circumstances, the processing of affective information captures attention only with more biologically relevant stimuli. Also, these data might be better interpreted on the basis of those models that postulate a different access to affective information for words and pictures.

Usually, two main types of visual emotional stimuli have been employed in the study of affect-related processes: verbal (e.g., single words or sentences) and pictorial (e.g., facial expressions or emotional scenes). An important and recurrent question is whether both types of visual stimuli are equally capable of inducing emotional reactions. Some authors have pointed out that pictorial stimuli are associated with higher levels of emotional arousal than is verbal emotional material (Carretié et al., 2008; Keil, 2006; Kissler, Assadollahi, & Herbert, 2006; Mogg & Bradley, 1998). On the one hand, these assertions are based in part on theoretical views that deny any role for verbal material in the evolution of emotion-related neural systems and assume that the processing of verbal material is culture mediated. On the other hand, such assertions are based on indirect evidence provided by the results of several studies that have dealt with the processing of verbal or pictorial emotional stimuli separately, across a wide variety of tasks and experimental parameters.

The situation becomes still more problematic when differences in the stimulus channel during the processing of verbal and pictorial stimuli are considered. Some authors have claimed that meaning is represented in a functional unitary system that is directly accessed by both visual objects and words (Caramazza, 1996). However, an alternative theoretical perspective (e.g., Glaser, 1992; Glaser & Glaser, 1989) postulates a distinction between a semantic system involved in the perception of images, which contains only semantic knowledge, and a lexicon that is responsible for language perception, which includes only linguistic knowledge. On this view, pictures have a privileged access to all nodes of the semantic system, because language perception comprises additional processing before accessing the semantic system. On the basis of these models, some theories of affect state that affective information is stored as a sort of tag, associated with the concept node within a network similar to the semantic system (Bower, 1981; Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986; Fiske & Pavelchak, 1986). According to this view, pictures would show a facilitated access to emotional aspects (De Houwer & Hermans, 1994).

Studies Comparing Words and Pictures

Only two previous studies have directly compared the processing of emotional words and pictures (see also Vanderploeg, Brown, & Marsh, 1987, for a comparison between words and schematic drawings of faces). In the first of these studies, De Houwer and Hermans (1994) used a word-picture affective Stroop task and found that emotional pictures, but not words, produced interference effects. Also, naming times were reduced for negative pictures, but not for negative words. These authors concluded that pictures have privileged access to emotional information. …

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