Psychology Magazine

Brain Activity Underlying Subjective Awareness

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

Hill and He devise and interesting paradigm to distinguish brain activities directly contributing to conscious perception from brain activities that precede or follow it. They do this by examining trial by trial objective performance, subjective awareness, and the confidence level of subjective awareness. They find that widely distributed slow cortical potentials in the < 4 Hz (delta) range - i.e. brain activity waves taking longer than a quarter of a second - correlate with subjective awareness, even after the effects of objective performance and confidence (contributed by more transient brain activity) were both removed. Here is their abstract:

Despite intense recent research, the neural correlates of conscious visual perception remain elusive. The most established paradigm for studying brain mechanisms underlying conscious perception is to keep the physical sensory inputs constant and identify brain activities that correlate with the changing content of conscious awareness. However, such a contrast based on conscious content alone would not only reveal brain activities directly contributing to conscious perception, but also include brain activities that precede or follow it. To address this issue, we devised a paradigm whereby we collected, trial-by-trial, measures of objective performance, subjective awareness, and the confidence level of subjective awareness. Using magnetoencephalography recordings in healthy human volunteers, we dissociated brain activities underlying these different cognitive phenomena. Our results provide strong evidence that widely distributed slow cortical potentials (SCPs) correlate with subjective awareness, even after the effects of objective performance and confidence were both removed. The SCP correlate of conscious perception manifests strongly in its waveform, phase, and power. In contrast, objective performance and confidence were both contributed by relatively transient brain activity. These results shed new light on the brain mechanisms of conscious, unconscious, and metacognitive processing.

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