Visual processing: conscious until proven otherwise

R Soc Open Sci. 2018 Jan 31;5(1):171783. doi: 10.1098/rsos.171783. eCollection 2018 Jan.


Unconscious perception, or perception without awareness, describes a situation where an observer's behaviour is influenced by a stimulus of which they have no phenomenal awareness. Perception without awareness is often claimed on the basis of a difference in thresholds for tasks that do and do not require awareness, for example, detecting the stimulus (requiring awareness) and making accurate judgements about the stimulus (based on unconscious processing). Although a difference in thresholds would be expected if perceptual evidence were processed without awareness, such a difference does not necessitate that this is actually occurring: a difference in thresholds can also arise from response bias, or through task differences. Here we ask instead whether the pattern of performance could be obtained if the observer were aware of the evidence used in making their decisions. A backwards masking paradigm was designed using digits as target stimuli, with difficulty controlled by the time between target and mask. Performance was measured over three tasks: detection, graphic discrimination and semantic discrimination. Despite finding significant differences in thresholds measured using proportion correct, and in observer sensitivity, modelling suggests that these differences were not the result of perception without awareness. That is, the observer was not relying solely on unconscious information to make decisions.

Keywords: awareness; backward masking; computational modelling; consciousness; signal detection theory; visual perception.

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3979422