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Processing of Emotion and Language - Development and interaction across lifespan (319)

Principal Investigator:

Emotional cues, especially facial expression of emotion and emotional prosody can be considered pivotal for the acquisition and development of cognitive skills (e.g., language).

Emotional cues, especially facial expression of emotion and emotional prosody can be considered pivotal for the acquisition and development of cognitive skills (e.g., language). Previous studies have shown that infants and adults show an increased attention towards the expression of negative emotions compared to positive or neutral emotional expressions.

This so called negative-bias could have been developed evolutionary: other people expressing negative emotions might indicate danger, and thus function as a cue for eliciting an increased alertness. According to this hypothesis this increased attention for negative emotional expression is thought to be innate. Hence, when infants are able to perceive and discriminate emotional expression in others they should also show the negative-bias.

The current project aims at investigating the development of the interaction between emotion and language processing across the lifespan to further elucidate the evolutionary and cultural development of emotions. The project uses an interdisciplinary and multimodal approach combining psychophysical methods (e.g., heart-rate, eye-tracking) with different neuroimaging methods (Near-Infrared-Spectroscopy, EEG) to investigate these processes in different populations. Event-related potentials (ERPs) allow the assessment of attention in all age-groups. The vascular brain signal measured by NIRS provides additional information about the localization of these processes.

If the negativity-bias is indeed related to increased attention/alertness during negative emotional expressions we expect the ERPs in response to auditory (language) stimuli to be modulated by the different emotional expressions. In that case negative emotional expressions might elicit an increased amplitude of the ERP in comparison to positive or neutral stimuli. An increased attention during negative emotional cues compared to other unfamiliar or evolutionary less salient emotional cues might underpin the hypothesis of an evolutionary negativity-bias. We also aim at investigating intercultural differences in processing negative emotional expressions.


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Cannestra, A. F., Wartenburger, I., Obrig, H., Villringer, A., Toga, A. W. (2003). Functional assessment of Broca's area using near infrared spectroscopy in humans. Neuroreport 14 (15). 1961-1965. PMID: 14561929

Wartenburger, I., Heekeren, H. R., Abutalebi, J., Cappa, S. F., Villringer, A., Perani, D. (2003). Early setting of grammatical processing in the bilingual brain. Neuron 37. 159–170.

Wartenburger, I., Heekeren, H. R., Burchert, F., De Bleser, R., Villringer, A. (2003). Grammaticality judgments on sentences with and without movement of phrasal constituents - an event-related fMRI-study. Journal of Neurolinguistics 16 (4-5). 301-314. doi:10.1016/S0911-6044(03)00028-9