Accepted on 09/03/2021

Fearful faces modulate spatial processing in peripersonal space: an ERP study

Ellena G, Starita F, Haggard P, Romei V, Làdavas E.

Peripersonal space (PPS) represents the region of space surrounding the body. A pivotal function of PPS is to coordinate defensive responses to threat. We have previously shown that a centrally-presented, looming fearful face, signalling a potential threat in one’s surroundings, modulates spatial processing by promoting a redirection of sensory resources away from the face towards the periphery, where the threat may be expected – but only when the face is presented in near, rather than far space. Here, we use electrophysiological measures to investigate the neural mechanism underlying this effect. Participants made simple responses to tactile stimuli delivered on the cheeks, while watching task-irrelevant neutral or fearful avatar faces, looming towards them either in near or far space. Simultaneously with the tactile stimulation, a ball with a checkerboard pattern (probe) appeared to the left or right of the avatar face. Crucially, this probe could either be close to the avatar face, and thus more central in the participant’s vision, or further away from the avatar face, and thus more peripheral in the participant’s vision. Electroencephalography was continuously recorded. Behavioural results confirmed that in near space only, and for fearful relative to neutral faces, tactile processing was facilitated by the peripheral compared to the central probe. This behavioural effect was accompanied by a reduction of the N1 mean amplitude elicited by the peripheral probe for fearful relative to neutral faces. Moreover, the faster the participants responded to tactile stimuli with the peripheral probe, relative to the central, the smaller was their N1. Together these results, suggest that fearful faces intruding into PPS may increase expectation of a visual event occurring in the periphery. This fear-induced effect would enhance the defensive function of PPS when it is most needed, i.e., when the source of threat is nearby, but its location remains unknown.