Selective attention to a primary task can be biased by the occurrence of emotional distractors that involuntary attract attention due to their intrinsic stimulus significance. What is largely unknown is the time course and magnitude of competitive interactions between a to-be-attended foreground task and emotional distractors. We used pleasant, unpleasant and neutral pictures from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) that were either presented in intact or phase-scrambled form. Pictures were superimposed by a flickering display of moving random dots, which constituted the primary task and enabled us to record steady-state visual evoked potentials (SSVEPs) as a continuous measure of attentional resource allocation directed to the task. Subjects were required to attend to the dots and to detect short intervals of coherent motion while ignoring the background pictures. We found that pleasant and unpleasant relative to neutral pictures more strongly influenced task-related processing as reflected in a significant decrease in SSVEP amplitudes and target detection rates, both covering a time window of several hundred milliseconds. Strikingly, the effect of semantic relative to phase-scrambled pictures on task-related activity was much larger, emerged earlier and lasted longer in time compared to the specific effect of emotion. The observed differences in size and duration of time courses of semantic and emotional picture processing strengthen the assumption of separate functional mechanisms for both processes rather than a general boosting of neural activity in favor of emotional stimulus processing.
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