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Petra Vetter, Stephanie Badde, Elizabeth Phelps, Marisa Carrasco; The eyes react to emotional faces in the absence of awareness. Journal of Vision 2018;18(10):613. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/18.10.613.
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BACKGROUND. The ability to quickly respond to threat is a key skill for survival. Threat-related emotional information, such as an angry or fearful face, gains perceptual access preferentially over neutral information. However, it is unknown whether emotional information has to reach awareness to be processed further and guide actions. Eye movements can track visual information that we are unaware of perceiving (Spering & Carrasco, TINS 2016). Our goal was to investigate whether threat-related facial emotions trigger specific eye-movements in the absence of awareness. METHODS. We presented upright and inverted face images with different emotional expressions – neutral, angry, and fearful – randomly in one quadrant of a dichoptic display. The faces were rendered unaware using continuous flash suppression and viewer's eye movements were recorded during successful suppression as determined by objective measures of awareness (chance level for face localization and for emotion categorization) and subjective measures of awareness (visibility rating of 0). RESULTS. In the absence of awareness, gaze moved away from upright angry faces and moved towards upright fearful faces. No such effects on gaze were found for inverted emotional face images. Our results show that emotional face expressions are qualitatively processed, that is, processed beyond mere detection, in the absence of awareness. Moreover, unaware emotional face expressions trigger specific eye movements, depending on the emotion displayed: gaze aversion for angry faces and gaze attraction for fearful faces. We suggest that this unconscious emotion-specific guidance of eye movements may be mediated by differential fight, flight, or freeze responses via a subcortical pathway involving the amygdala, pulvinar, and superior colliculus. Our results exemplify the unconscious power of emotions on our actions.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2018
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