Neural signatures of conscious and unconscious emotional face processing in human infants

Sarah Jessen*, Tobias Grossmann

*Corresponding author for this work
12 Citations (Scopus)


Human adults can process emotional information both with and without conscious awareness, and it has been suggested that the two processes rely on partly distinct brain mechanisms. However, the developmental origins of these brain processes are unknown. In the present event-related brain potential (ERP) study, we examined the brain responses of 7-month-old infants in response to subliminally (50 and 100msec) and supraliminally (500msec) presented happy and fearful facial expressions. Our results revealed that infants' brain responses (Pb and Nc) over central electrodes distinguished between emotions irrespective of stimulus duration, whereas the discrimination between emotions at occipital electrodes (N290 and P400) only occurred when faces were presented supraliminally (above threshold). This suggests that early in development the human brain not only discriminates between happy and fearful facial expressions irrespective of conscious perception, but also that, similar to adults, supraliminal and subliminal emotion processing relies on distinct neural processes. Our data further suggest that the processing of emotional facial expressions differs across infants depending on their behaviorally shown perceptual sensitivity. The current ERP findings suggest that distinct brain processes underpinning conscious and unconscious emotion perception emerge early in ontogeny and can therefore be seen as a key feature of human social functioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)260-270
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 01.03.2015


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