The rapid evaluation of complex visual environments is critical for an organism's adaptation and survival. Previous studies have shown that emotionally significant visual scenes, both pleasant and unpleasant, elicit a larger late positive wave in the event-related brain potential (ERP) than emotionally neutral pictures. The purpose of the present study was to examine whether neuroelectric responses elicited by complex pictures discriminate between specific, biologically relevant contents of the visual scene and to determine how early in the picture processing this discrimination occurs. Subjects (n = 264) viewed 55 color slides differing in both scene content and emotional significance. No categorical judgments or responses were required. Consistent with previous studies, we found that emotionally arousing pictures, regardless of their content, produce a larger late positive wave than neutral pictures. However, when pictures were further categorized by content, anterior ERP components in a time window between 200 and 600 ms following stimulus onset showed a high selectivity for pictures with erotic content compared to other pictures regardless of their emotional valence (pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant) or emotional arousal. The divergence of ERPs elicited by erotic and non-erotic contents started at 185 ms post-stimulus in the fronto-central midline region, with a later onset in parietal regions. This rapid, selective, and content-specific processing of erotic materials and its dissociation from other pictures (including emotionally positive pictures) suggests the existence of a specialized neural network for prioritized processing of a distinct category of biologically relevant stimuli with high adaptive and evolutionary significance.
- Content selectivity
- Visual processing