Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Although the neurocognitive mechanisms of nonaffective language comprehension have been studied extensively, relatively less is known about how the emotional meaning of language is processed. In this study, electrophysiological responses to affectively positive, negative, and neutral words, presented within nonconstraining, neutral contexts, were evaluated under conditions of explicit evaluation of emotional content (Experiment 1) and passive reading (Experiment 2). In both experiments, a widely distributed Late Positivity was found to be larger to negative than to positive words (a “negativity bias”). In addition, in Experiment 2, a small, posterior N400 effect to negative and positive (relative to neutral) words was detected, with no differences found between N400 magnitudes to negative and positive words. Taken together, these results suggest that comprehending the emotional meaning of words following a neutral context requires an initial semantic analysis that is relatively more engaged for emotional than for nonemotional words, whereas a later, more extended, attention-modulated process distinguishes the specific emotional valence (positive vs. negative) of words. Thus, emotional processing networks within the brain appear to exert a continuous influence, evident at several stages, on the construction of the emotional meaning of language.