The operations and processes that the human brain employs to achieve fast visual categorization remain a matter of debate. A first issue concerns the timing and place of rapid visual categorization and to what extent it can be performed with an early feed-forward pass of information through the visual system. A second issue involves the categorization of stimuli that do not reach visual awareness. There is disagreement over the degree to which these stimuli activate the same early mechanisms as stimuli that are consciously perceived. We employed continuous flash suppression (CFS), EEG recordings, and machine learning techniques to study visual categorization of seen and unseen stimuli. Our classifiers were able to predict from the EEG recordings the category of stimuli on seen trials but not on unseen trials. Rapid categorization of conscious images could be detected around 100 ms on the occipital electrodes, consistent with a fast, feed-forward mechanism of target detection. For the invisible stimuli, however, CFS eliminated all traces of early processing. Our results support the idea of a fast mechanism of categorization and suggest that this early categorization process plays an important role in later, more subtle categorizations, and perceptual processes.
Keywords: EEG; continuous flash suppression; rapid categorization; visual awareness.