Current theories of emotion suggest that threat-related stimuli are first processed via an automatically engaged neural mechanism, which occurs outside conscious awareness. This mechanism operates in conjunction with a slower and more comprehensive process that allows a detailed evaluation of the potentially harmful stimulus (LeDoux, 1998). We drew on the Halgren and Marinkovic (1995) model to examine these processes using event-related potentials (ERPs) within a backward masking paradigm. Stimuli used were faces with fear and neutral (as baseline control) expressions, presented above (supraliminal) and below (subliminal) the threshold for conscious detection. ERP data revealed a double dissociation for the supraliminal versus subliminal perception of fear. In the subliminal condition, responses to the perception of fear stimuli were enhanced relative to neutral for the N2 “excitatory” component, which is thought to represent orienting and automatic aspects of face processing. By contrast, supraliminal perception of fear was associated with relatively enhanced responses for the late P3 “inhibitory” component, implicated in the integration of emotional processes. These findings provide evidence in support of Halgren and Marinkovic's temporal model of emotion processing, and indicate that the neural mechanisms for appraising signals of threat may be initiated, not only automatically, but also without the need for conscious detection of these signals.

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