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Foveal processing of emotion-informative facial features

Duran, Nazire and Atkinson, Anthony P. (2021) 'Foveal processing of emotion-informative facial features.', PLOS ONE, 16 (12). e0260814.


Certain facial features provide useful information for recognition of facial expressions. In two experiments, we investigated whether foveating informative features of briefly presented expressions improves recognition accuracy and whether these features are targeted reflexively when not foveated. Angry, fearful, surprised, and sad or disgusted expressions were presented briefly at locations which would ensure foveation of specific features. Foveating the mouth of fearful, surprised and disgusted expressions improved emotion recognition compared to foveating an eye or cheek or the central brow. Foveating the brow led to equivocal results in anger recognition across the two experiments, which might be due to the different combination of emotions used. There was no consistent evidence suggesting that reflexive first saccades targeted emotion-relevant features; instead, they targeted the closest feature to initial fixation. In a third experiment, angry, fearful, surprised and disgusted expressions were presented for 5 seconds. Duration of task-related fixations in the eyes, brow, nose and mouth regions was modulated by the presented expression. Moreover, longer fixation at the mouth positively correlated with anger and disgust accuracy both when these expressions were freely viewed (Experiment 2b) and when briefly presented at the mouth (Experiment 2a). Finally, an overall preference to fixate the mouth across all expressions correlated positively with anger and disgust accuracy. These findings suggest that foveal processing of informative features is functional/contributory to emotion recognition, but they are not automatically sought out when not foveated, and that facial emotion recognition performance is related to idiosyncratic gaze behaviour.

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Publisher statement:© 2021 Duran, Atkinson. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Date accepted:23 November 2021
Date deposited:03 December 2021
Date of first online publication:02 December 2021
Date first made open access:03 December 2021

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