Annekathrin Schacht and Pascal Vrticka

Spatio-Temporal Pattern of Appraising Social and Emotional Relevance: Evidence from Event-Related Brain Potentials

Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Social information is highly intrinsically relevant for the human species because of its direct link to guiding physiological responses and behavior. Accordingly, extant functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data suggest that social content may form a unique stimulus dimension. It remains largely unknown, however, how neural activity underlying social (versus nonsocial) information processing temporally unfolds, and how such social information appraisal may interact with the processing of other stimulus characteristics, particularly emotional meaning. Here, we presented complex visual scenes differing in both social (versus nonsocial) and emotional relevance (positive, negative, neutral) intermixed with scrambled versions of these pictures to N= 24 healthy young adults. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to intact pictures were examined for gaining insight to the dynamics of appraisal of both dimensions, implemented within the brain. Our main finding is an early interaction between social and emotional relevance due to enhanced amplitudes of early ERP components to emotionally positive pictures of social compared to nonsocial content, presumably reflecting rapid allocation of attention and counteracting an overall negativity bias. Importantly, our ERP data show high similarity with previously observed fMRI data using the same stimuli, and source estimations located the ERP effects in overlapping occipito-temporal brain areas. Our new data suggest that relevance detection may occur already as early as around 100 ms after stimulus onset and may combine relevance checks not only examining intrinsic pleasantness/emotional valence, but also social content as a unique, highly relevant stimulus dimension.