Sandwich masking eliminates both visual awareness of faces and face-specific brain activity through a feedforward mechanism.
It is generally agreed that considerable amounts of low-level sensory processing of visual stimuli can occur without conscious awareness. On the other hand, the degree of higher level visual processing that occurs in the absence of awareness is as yet unclear. Here, event-related potential (ERP) measures of brain activity were recorded during a sandwich-masking paradigm, a commonly used approach for attenuating conscious awareness of visual stimulus content. In particular, the present study used a combination of ERP activation contrasts to track both early sensory-processing ERP components and face-specific N170 ERP activations, in trials with versus without awareness. The electrophysiological measures revealed that the sandwich masking abolished the early face-specific N170 neural response (peaking at ~170 ms post-stimulus), an effect that paralleled the abolition of awareness of face versus non-face image content. Furthermore, however, the masking appeared to render a strong attenuation of earlier feedforward visual sensory-processing signals. This early attenuation presumably resulted in insufficient information being fed into the higher level visual system pathways specific to object category processing, thus leading to unawareness of the visual object content. These results support a coupling of visual awareness and neural indices of face processing, while also demonstrating an early low-level mechanism of interference in sandwich masking.
Harris, JA; Wu, C-T; Woldorff, MG
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