Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

"I Never Forget a Face, but in Your Case I'll Be Glad to Make an Exception": Intentional Forgetting of Emotional Faces

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

"I Never Forget a Face, but in Your Case I'll Be Glad to Make an Exception": Intentional Forgetting of Emotional Faces

Article excerpt

An angry expression on the face of a conspeciftc signals a contest for dominance and threatens the observer with the potential for social displacement and physical harm. The immediate well-being and long-term survival of the observer therefore depends on the ability to quickly orient to and assess the threat situation and to engage a fight-or-flight response if danger is imminent (see Lang, 1995). This implies that an evolutionary advantage should be conferred on individuals for whom angry faces are processed expeditiously (see Öhman, 1986).

There is considerable evidence that angry faces receive priority processing in human observers. Consider the following as cases in point. Subsequent to aversive conditioning, angry faces evoke larger galvanic skin responses and are more resistant to extinction than happy faces, even when backward masking limits conscious awareness of the conditioned stimulus (e.g., Morris, öhman, & Dolan, 1998). Event-related potentials (ERPs) reveal enhanced early posterior negativity as well as late positive potentials, consistent with enhanced perceptual processing of angry compared with neutral and happy faces (Schupp et al., 2004). Behaviourally, angry face targets in a visual array of neutral faces produce shallower search functions than vice versa, sometimes interpreted as evidence that angry faces "pop-out" (Eastwood, Smilek, & Merickle, 2001; Fox et al., 2000; Hansen & Hansen, 1988; however, see Becker, Anderson, Mortensen, Neufeld, & Neel, 2011; Purcell & Stewart, 2010). This relatively shallow search function for angry faces is accompanied by earlier onset and larger amplitude of the N2pc, a component of the ERP waveform that is associated with selective attention (Feldmann-Wiistefeld, Schmidt-Daffy, & Schubö, 2011). Indeed, compared with neutral faces, attention is biased toward the location of angry faces in the early intervals following their onset (Cooper & Langton, 2006; see also Schmidt, Belopolsky, & Theeuwes, 2012). In addition to attracting early attention, angry faces also slow its disengagement: When faces serve as the imperative signal at fixation to direct saccades to the left or right, these movements are initiated more slowly when the face displays an angry expression than when it displays a neutral or happy expression (Belopolsky, Devue, & Theeuwes, 2011; see also Fox, Russo, & Dutton, 2002).

Threat-related stimuli (e.g., angry facial expressions) may be simultaneously processed through two cortical visual processing routes (see Barrett & Bar, 2009). The first route, which involves the dorsal visual stream and orbitofrontal cortex, provides an initial threat assessment and may account for the fact that angry faces can exert control over attentional orienting (e.g., Mogg & Bradley, 1999), responding (e.g., conditioned responses; Mineka & Öhman, 2002), and subsequent decision making even when they are masked to restrict conscious awareness of their presentation (e.g., Almeida, Pajtas, Mahon, Nakayama, & Caramazza, 2013). Consistent with this hypothesis, positron emission tomography shows an enhanced response in right orbitofrontal cortex that correlates with the intensity of the angry expression and that is also implicated in animal studies of behavioural extinction and reversal (Blair, Morris, Frith, Perrett, & Dolan, 1999). The early warning signal raised by rapid unconscious processing in this stream is presumed to increase the observer's arousal and enhance response readiness. It further marks regions of interest for controlled processing through the second route, which involves the ventral visual stream (e.g., Vuilleumier & Schwartz, 2001).

To the extent that explicit memory benefits from focused attention at encoding (e.g., Baddeley, Lewis, Eldridge, & Thomson, 1984; Craik, Govoni, Naveh-Benjamin, & Anderson, 1996; Mulligan, 1998), the fast capture of attention to and slow disengagement of attention from angry faces at study would seem to predict better subsequent memory performance at test; however, this does not appear to be the case (except possibly in the case of visual short-term memory; e. …

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