The rapid visual detection of other people in our environment is an important first step in social cognition. Here we provide evidence for selective sensitivity of the human visual system to upright depictions of conspecifics. In a series of seven experiments, we assessed the impact of stimulus inversion on the detection of person silhouettes, headless bodies, faces and other objects from a wide range of animate and inanimate control categories. We used continuous flash suppression (CFS), a variant of binocular rivalry, to render stimuli invisible at the beginning of each trial and measured the time upright and inverted stimuli needed to overcome such interocular suppression. Inversion strongly interfered with access to awareness for human faces, headless human bodies, person silhouettes, and even highly variable body postures, while suppression durations for control objects were not (inanimate objects) or only mildly (animal faces and bodies) affected by inversion. Furthermore, inversion effects were eliminated when the normal body configuration was distorted. The absence of strong inversion effects in a binocular control condition not involving interocular suppression suggests that non-conscious mechanisms mediated the effect of inversion on body and face detection during CFS. These results indicate that perceptual mechanisms that govern access to visual awareness are highly sensitive to the presence of conspecifics.
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