Unconscious processing of facial affect in children and adolescents

William D.S. Killgore, Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


In a previous study, with adults, we demonstrated that the amygdala and anterior cingulate gyrus are differentially responsive to happy and sad faces presented subliminally. Because the ability to perceive subtle facial signals communicating sadness is an important aspect of prosocial development, and is critical for empathic behavior, we examined this phenomenon from a developmental perspective using a backward masking paradigm. While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 10 healthy adolescent children were presented with a series of happy and sad facial expressions, each lasting 20 ms and masked immediately by a neutral face to prevent conscious awareness of the affective expression. Relative to fixation baseline, masked sad faces activated the right amygdala, whereas masked happy faces failed to activate any of the regions of interest. Direct comparison between masked happy and sad faces revealed valence specific differences in the anterior cingulate gyrus. When the data were compared statistically to our previous sample of adults, the adolescent group showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala relative to the adults during the masked sad condition. Groups also differed in several non-hypothesized regions. Development of unconscious perception from adolescence into adulthood appears to be accompanied by reduced activity within limbic affect processing systems, and perhaps increased involvement of other cortical and cerebellar systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)28-47
Number of pages20
JournalSocial Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Development
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Unconscious processing of facial affect in children and adolescents'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this