The neural representation of facial-emotion categories reflects conceptual structure

Jeffrey A. Brooks, Junichi Chikazoe, Norihiro Sadato, Jonathan B. Freeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15861-15870
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
StatePublished - Aug 6 2019


  • Conceptual knowledge
  • Emotion perception
  • Facial expressions
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • Fusiform gyrus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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