Temporal dynamics of motor cortex excitability during perception of natural emotional scenes

Sara Borgomaneri, Valeria Gazzola, Alessio Avenanti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although it is widely assumed that emotions prime the body for action, the effects of visual perception of natural emotional scenes on the temporal dynamics of the human motor system have scarcely been investigated. Here, we used single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to assess motor excitability during observation and categorization of positive, neutral and negative pictures from the International Affective Picture System database. Motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) from TMS of the left motor cortex were recorded from hand muscles, at 150 and 300 ms after picture onset. In the early temporal condition we found an increase in hand motor excitability that was specific for the perception of negative pictures. This early negative bias was predicted by interindividual differences in the disposition to experience aversive feelings (personal distress) in interpersonal emotional contexts. In the later temporal condition, we found that MEPs were similarly increased for both positive and negative pictures, suggesting an increased reactivity to emotionally arousing scenes. By highlighting the temporal course of motor excitability during perception of emotional pictures, our study provides direct neurophysiological support for the evolutionary notions that emotion perception is closely linked to action systems and that emotionally negative events require motor reactions to be more urgently mobilized.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbernst139
Pages (from-to)1451-1457
Number of pages7
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Corticospinal excitability
  • Emotional scenes
  • Motor reactions
  • Neural dynamics
  • Personal distress
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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