When multiple stimuli are concurrently displayed in the visual field, they must compete for neural representation at the processing expense of their contemporaries. This biased competition is thought to begin as early as primary visual cortex, and can be driven by salient low-level stimulus features. Stimuli important for an organism's survival, such as facial expressions signaling environmental threat, might be similarly prioritized at this early stage of visual processing. In the present study, we used ERP recordings from striate cortex to examine whether fear expressions can bias the competition for neural representation at the earliest stage of retinotopic visuo-cortical processing when in direct competition with concurrently presented visual information of neutral valence. We found that within 50 msec after stimulus onset, information processing in primary visual cortex is biased in favor of perceptual representations of fear at the expense of competing visual information (Experiment 1). Additional experiments confirmed that the facial display's emotional content rather than low-level features is responsible for this prioritization in V1 (Experiment 2), and that this competition is reliant on a face's upright canonical orientation (Experiment 3). These results suggest that complex stimuli important for an organism's survival can indeed be prioritized at the earliest stage of cortical processing at the expense of competing information, with competition possibly beginning before encoding in V1.

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