Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 97-110

First online:

The role of spatial attention in the processing of facial expression: An ERP study of rapid brain responses to six basic emotions

  • Martin EimerAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London Email author 
  • , Amanda HolmesAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London
  • , Francis P. McGloneAffiliated withPort Sunlight Laboratories, Unilever Research


To investigate the time course of emotional expression processing, we recorded ERP responses to stimulus arrays containing neutral versus angry, disgusted, fearful, happy, sad, or surprised faces. In one half of the experiment, the task was to discriminate emotional and neutral facial expressions. Here, an enhanced early frontocentral positivity was elicited in response to emotional as opposed to neutral faces, followed by a broadly distributed positivity and an enhanced negativity at lateral posterior sites. These emotional expression effects were very similar for all six basic emotional expressions. In the other half of the experiment, attention was directed away from the faces toward a demanding perceptual discrimination task. Under these conditions, emotional expression effects were completely eliminated, demonstrating that brain processes involved in the detection and analysis of facial expression require focal attention. The face-specific N170 component was unaffected by any emotional expression, supporting the hypothesis that structural encoding and expression analysis are independent processes.