Psychology Magazine

Defining When a Visual Stimulus Become Conscious to Us.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

Llinás and collaborators do a nice dissection of our conscious versus unconscious visual processing and note the timing (240 milliseconds) of a brain signal that correlates with our conscious awareness of a stimulus. (This is the same time epoch that I evoke in the "millisecond manager" term I use in several of my essays in the left column of this blog - a period during which we can note the onset of a visual or emotional perception before further action or interpretation begins.)

At perceptual threshold, some stimuli are available for conscious access whereas others are not. Such threshold inputs are useful tools for investigating the events that separate conscious awareness from unconscious stimulus processing. Here, viewing unmasked, threshold-duration images was combined with recording magnetoencephalography to quantify differences among perceptual states, ranging from no awareness to ambiguity to robust perception. A four-choice scale was used to assess awareness: “didn’t see” (no awareness), “couldn’t identify” (awareness without identification), “unsure” (awareness with low certainty identification), and “sure” (awareness with high certainty identification). Stimulus-evoked neuromagnetic signals were grouped according to behavioral response choices. Three main cortical responses were elicited. The earliest response, peaking at ∼100 ms after stimulus presentation, showed no significant correlation with stimulus perception. A late response (∼290 ms) showed moderate correlation with stimulus awareness but could not adequately differentiate conscious access from its absence. By contrast, an intermediate response peaking at ∼240 ms was observed only for trials in which stimuli were consciously detected. That this signal was similar for all conditions in which awareness was reported is consistent with the hypothesis that conscious visual access is relatively sharply demarcated.

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