Distinct brain mechanisms for conscious versus subliminal error detection

Neuroimage. 2013 Jun;73:80-94. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.01.054. Epub 2013 Feb 4.


Metacognition, the ability to monitor one's own cognitive processes, is frequently assumed to be univocally associated with conscious processing. However, some monitoring processes, such as those associated with the evaluation of one's own performance, may conceivably be sufficiently automatized to be deployed non-consciously. Here, we used simultaneous electro- and magneto-encephalography (EEG/MEG) to investigate how error detection is modulated by perceptual awareness of a masked target digit. The Error-Related Negativity (ERN), an EEG component occurring ~100 ms after an erroneous response, was exclusively observed on conscious trials: regardless of masking strength, the amplitude of the ERN showed a step-like increase when the stimulus became visible. Nevertheless, even in the absence of an ERN, participants still managed to detect their errors at above-chance levels under subliminal conditions. Error detection on conscious trials originated from the posterior cingulate cortex, while a small response to non-conscious errors was seen in dorsal anterior cingulate. We propose the existence of two distinct brain mechanisms for metacognitive judgements: a conscious all-or-none process of single-trial response evaluation, and a non-conscious statistical assessment of confidence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Behavior / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Signal Detection, Psychological / physiology
  • Software
  • Subliminal Stimulation*
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult