Neural processes underlying the orienting of attention without awareness.
Despite long being of interest to both philosophers and scientists, the relationship between attention and perceptual awareness is not well understood, especially to what extent they are even dissociable. Previous studies have shown that stimuli of which we are unaware can orient spatial attention and affect behavior. Yet, relatively little is understood about the neural processes underlying such unconscious orienting of attention, and how they compare to conscious orienting. To directly compare the cascade of attentional processes with and without awareness of the orienting stimulus, we employed a spatial-cueing paradigm and used object-substitution masking to manipulate subjects' awareness of the cues. We recorded EEG during the task, from which we extracted hallmark event-related-potential (ERP) indices of attention. Behaviorally, there was a 61 ms validity effect (invalidly minus validly cued target RTs) on cue-aware trials. On cue-unaware trials, subjects also had a robust validity effect of 20 ms, despite being unaware of the cue. An N2pc to the cue, a hallmark ERP index of the lateralized orienting of attention, was observed for cue-aware but not cue-unaware trials, despite the latter showing a clear behavioral validity effect. Finally, the P1 sensory-ERP response to the targets was larger when validly versus invalidly cued, even when subjects were unaware of the preceding cue, demonstrating enhanced sensory processing of targets following subliminal cues. These results suggest that subliminal stimuli can orient attention and lead to subsequent enhancements to both stimulus sensory processing and behavior, but through different neural mechanisms (such as via a subcortical pathway) than stimuli we perceive.
Giattino, CM; Alam, ZM; Woldorff, MG
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