Brain processes in emotional perception: Motivated attention

Harald T. Schupp, Bruce N. Cuthbert, Margaret M. Bradley, Charles H. Hillman, Alfons O. Hamm, Peter J. Lang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Brain potentials and blink reflexes were recorded while participants viewed emotional pictures organised into content categories that varied in motivational significance. Event-related potentials at picture onset showed the largest late positive potentials to erotic scenes and to scenes of threat and mutilation, suggesting heightened attention to contents that are presumed to strongly activate appetitive and defensive motivational systems. Erotic content also showed the greatest sustained attention over the viewing interval as measured by the inhibition of the P3 component of the event-related potential to the late interval startle probe. Among pleasant contents, probe P3 amplitude was inversely related to reported arousal; however, P3 was similarly inhibited across all unpleasant contents. Replicating previous findings, greatest modulation of the startle reflex occurred when participants viewed pictures depicting threat, violent death, and erotica. Overall, the data were seen as consistent with a motivated attention model of emotional perception.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)593-611
Number of pages19
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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