Morphed facial expressions elicited a N400 ERP effect: A domain-specific semantic module?

Michela Balconi, Uberto Pozzoli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous studies have revealed that decoding of facial expressions is a specific component of face comprehension and that semantic information might be processed separately from the basic stage of face perception. In order to explore event-related potentials (ERPs) related to recognition of facial expressions and the effect of the semantic content of the stimulus, we analyzed 20 normal subjects. Faces with three prototypical emotional expressions (fear, happiness, and sadness) and with three morphed expressions were presented in random order. The neutral stimuli represented the control condition. Whereas ERP profiles were similar with respect to an early negative ERP (N170), differences in peak amplitude were observed later between incongruous (morphed) expressions and congruous (prototypical) ones. In fact, the results demonstrated that the emotional morphed faces elicited a negative peak at about 360 ms, mainly distributed over the posterior site. The electrophysiological activity observed may represent a specific cognitive process underlying decoding of facial expressions in case of semantic anomaly detection. The evidence is in favor of the similarity of this negative deflection with the N400 ERP effect elicited in linguistic tasks. A domain-specific semantic module is proposed to explain these results.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)467-474
Number of pages8
JournalScandinavian Journal of Psychology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2005


  • Event-related potentials
  • Face processing
  • Facial expressions
  • Semantic decoding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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