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Paul MJ Thomas, Margaret C Jackson, David EJ Linden, Jane E Raymond; The role of attention in working memory for emotional faces. Journal of Vision 2010;10(7):769. doi: 10.1167/10.7.769.
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Face identities are better remembered in working memory (WM) when faces are angry versus happy or neutral (Jackson et al., 2009: JEPHPP, vol 35). This ‘angry benefit’ correlates specifically with activity in the globus pallidus (Jackson et al, 2008: PLoS One, vol 3), part of the basal ganglia that has been suggested to act as an attentional filter allowing only relevant information into WM. This finding is broadly consistent with evidence that threatening faces capture attention more efficiently than non-threatening faces. Could the angry face benefit in WM be due to greater attentional capture by angry versus happy/neutral faces? To investigate this, we presented a single emotional face (angry or happy) among one or three neutral faces in a WM encoding display. In other (non-singleton) conditions, all faces shared the same expression (as in the original studies). WM for face identity was tested 1000ms later by asking whether a single probe face was ‘present’ or ‘absent’ in the encoding display. WM was probed for emotional singletons and neutral others. If angry faces capture attention better than happy faces, enhanced WM for angry versus happy singletons, and poorer WM for neutral others when accompanied by an angry versus happy singleton, is expected. However, we found non-significant WM differences in these condition comparisons, suggesting that attentional capture does not underpin the original angry face benefit. Interestingly, at high load, WM was better when an angry singleton (1 angry among 3 neutral) versus angry non-singleton (1 angry among 3 other angry) was probed, an effect not significant for happy faces. This suggests that angry but not happy singletons may be preferentially prioritised for WM selection via emotional grouping. The ability to isolate in WM an angry face from several other non-angry faces might reflect enhanced preparation to prioritize a threat response if required.
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