Even during moments when we fail to be fully aware of our environment, our brains never go silent. Instead, it appears that the brain can also operate in an alternate, unconscious mode. Delineating unconscious from conscious neural processes is a promising first step toward investigating how awareness emerges from brain activity. Here we focus on recent insights into the neuronal processes that contribute to visual function in the absence of a conscious visual percept. Drawing on insights from findings on the phenomenon of blindsight that results from injury to primary visual cortex and the results of experimentally induced perceptual suppression, we describe what kind of visual information the visual system analyzes unconsciously and we discuss the neuronal routing and responses that accompany this process. We conclude that unconscious processing of certain visual stimulus attributes, such as the presence of visual motion or the emotional expression of a face can occur in a geniculo-cortical circuit that runs independent from and in parallel to the predominant route through primary visual cortex. We speculate that in contrast, bidirectional neuronal interactions between cortex and the thalamic pulvinar nucleus that support large-scale neuronal integration and visual awareness are impeded during blindsight and perceptual suppression.
Keywords: Awareness; Integrated information; Neurophysiology; Psychophysics; Visual perception; fMRI.
Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.