Neural processing of emotional faces requires attention.
Attention gates the processing of stimuli relatively early in visual cortex. Yet, existing data suggest that emotional stimuli activate brain regions automatically, largely immune from attentional control. To resolve this puzzle, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to first measure activation in regions that responded differentially to faces with emotional expressions (fearful and happy) compared with neutral faces. We then measured the modulation of these responses by attention, using a competing task with a high attentional load. Contrary to the prevailing view, all brain regions responding differentially to emotional faces, including the amygdala, did so only when sufficient attentional resources were available to process the faces. Thus, the processing of facial expression appears to be under top-down control.
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