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Unconscious neural processing differs with method used to render stimuli invisible.

  • Author(s): Fogelson, Sergey V;
  • Kohler, Peter J;
  • Miller, Kevin J;
  • Granger, Richard;
  • Tse, Peter U
  • et al.
Abstract

Visual stimuli can be kept from awareness using various methods. The extent of processing that a given stimulus receives in the absence of awareness is typically used to make claims about the role of consciousness more generally. The neural processing elicited by a stimulus, however, may also depend on the method used to keep it from awareness, and not only on whether the stimulus reaches awareness. Here we report that the method used to render an image invisible has a dramatic effect on how category information about the unseen stimulus is encoded across the human brain. We collected fMRI data while subjects viewed images of faces and tools, that were rendered invisible using either continuous flash suppression (CFS) or chromatic flicker fusion (CFF). In a third condition, we presented the same images under normal fully visible viewing conditions. We found that category information about visible images could be extracted from patterns of fMRI responses throughout areas of neocortex known to be involved in face or tool processing. However, category information about stimuli kept from awareness using CFS could be recovered exclusively within occipital cortex, whereas information about stimuli kept from awareness using CFF was also decodable within temporal and frontal regions. We conclude that unconsciously presented objects are processed differently depending on how they are rendered subjectively invisible. Caution should therefore be used in making generalizations on the basis of any one method about the neural basis of consciousness or the extent of information processing without consciousness.

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