Classic theories of emotion hold that emotion categories (e.g., Anger and Sadness) each have corresponding facial expressions that can be universally recognized. Alternative approaches emphasize that a perceiver’s unique conceptual knowledge (e.g., memories, associations, and expectations) about emotions can substantially interact with processing of facial cues, leading to interindividual variability—rather than universality—in facial-emotion perception. We find that each individual’s conceptual structure significantly predicts the brain’s representational structure, over and above the influence of facial features. Conceptual structure also predicts multiple behavioral patterns of emotion perception, including cross-cultural differences in patterns of emotion categorizations. These findings suggest that emotion perception, and the brain’s representations of face categories, can be flexibly influenced by conceptual understanding of emotions.Abstract
Humans reliably categorize configurations of facial actions into specific emotion categories, leading some to argue that this process is invariant between individuals and cultures. However, growing behavioral evidence suggests that factors such as emotion-concept knowledge may shape the way emotions are visually perceived, leading to variability—rather than universality—in facial-emotion perception. Understanding variability in emotion perception is only emerging, and the neural basis of any impact from the structure of emotion-concept knowledge remains unknown. In a neuroimaging study, we used a representational similarity analysis (RSA) approach to measure the correspondence between the conceptual, perceptual, and neural representational structures of the six emotion categories Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness, and Surprise. We found that subjects exhibited individual differences in their conceptual structure of emotions, which predicted their own unique perceptual structure. When viewing faces, the representational structure of multivoxel patterns in the right fusiform gyrus was significantly predicted by a subject’s unique conceptual structure, even when controlling for potential physical similarity in the faces themselves. Finally, cross-cultural differences in emotion perception were also observed, which could be explained by individual differences in conceptual structure. Our results suggest that the representational structure of emotion expressions in visual face-processing regions may be shaped by idiosyncratic conceptual understanding of emotion categories.