This electroencephalography (EEG) study investigated at which temporal processing stages self-other discrimination in emotion processing occurs. EEG was recorded in 23 healthy participants during silent reading of unpleasant, pleasant, and neutral pronoun-noun and article-noun expressions that were related to the participants themselves, related to an unknown third person, or had no self-other reference at all. Self- and other-related pronoun-noun pairs elicited larger cortical negativity relative to the processing of article-noun pairs at left posterior electrodes as early as 200 ms after stimulus onset. In the same time windows (from 200 ms to 300 ms and 300 ms to 400 ms) the emotionality of the words enhanced event-related brain potential (ERP) amplitudes at parieto-occipital electrodes. From 350 ms onwards, processing of self-related unpleasant words elicited larger frontal negativity compared to unpleasant words that were related to the other or that had no reference at all. In addition, processing of pleasant words vs. neutral or unpleasant words elicited larger positive amplitudes over parietal electrodes from 450 ms after stimulus onset, in particular when words were self-related. Our findings demonstrate that for verbal emotional stimuli, self-other discrimination first occurs at higher-order, cortical processing stages. This is consistent with the view that categorization of information according to certain stimulus aspects (self-other reference, emotionality) occurs before its meaning is integrated.
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