Studies of event-related potentials in humans have established larger early posterior negativity (EPN) in response to pictures depicting snakes than to pictures depicting other creatures. Ethological research has recently shown that macaques and wild vervet monkeys respond strongly to partially exposed snake models and scale patterns on the snake skin. Here, we examined whether snake skin patterns and partially exposed snakes elicit a larger EPN in humans. In Task 1, we employed pictures with close-ups of snake skins, lizard skins, and bird plumage. In task 2, we employed pictures of partially exposed snakes, lizards, and birds. Participants watched a random rapid serial visual presentation of these pictures. The EPN was scored as the mean activity (225-300 ms after picture onset) at occipital and parieto-occipital electrodes. Consistent with previous studies, and with the Snake Detection Theory, the EPN was significantly larger for snake skin pictures than for lizard skin and bird plumage pictures, and for lizard skin pictures than for bird plumage pictures. Likewise, the EPN was larger for partially exposed snakes than for partially exposed lizards and birds. The results suggest that the EPN snake effect is partly driven by snake skin scale patterns which are otherwise rare in nature.

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Journal Scientific Reports
van Strien, J.W, & Isbell, L.A. (2017). Snake scales, partial exposure, and the Snake Detection Theory: A human event-related potentials study. Scientific Reports, 7. doi:10.1038/srep46331