Revealing robust neural correlates of conscious and unconscious visual processing: Activation likelihood estimation meta-analyses

Neuroimage. 2023 Jun:273:120088. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2023.120088. Epub 2023 Apr 6.


Our ability to consciously perceive information from the visual scene relies on a myriad of intrinsic neural mechanisms. Functional neuroimaging studies have sought to identify the neural correlates of conscious visual processing and to further dissociate from those pertaining to preconscious and unconscious visual processing. However, delineating what core brain regions are involved in eliciting a conscious percept remains a challenge, particularly regarding the role of prefrontal-parietal regions. We performed a systematic search of the literature that yielded a total of 54 functional neuroimaging studies. We conducted two quantitative meta-analyses using activation likelihood estimation to identify reliable patterns of activation engaged by i. conscious (n = 45 studies, comprising 704 participants) and ii. unconscious (n = 16 studies, comprising 262 participants) visual processing during various task performances. Results of the meta-analysis specific to conscious percepts quantitatively revealed reliable activations across a constellation of regions comprising the bilateral inferior frontal junction, intraparietal sulcus, dorsal anterior cingulate, angular gyrus, temporo-occipital cortex and anterior insula. Neurosynth reverse inference revealed conscious visual processing to be intertwined with cognitive terms related to attention, cognitive control and working memory. Results of the meta-analysis on unconscious percepts revealed consistent activations in the lateral occipital complex, intraparietal sulcus and precuneus. These findings highlight the notion that conscious visual processing readily engages higher-level regions including the inferior frontal junction and unconscious processing reliably recruits posterior regions, mainly the lateral occipital complex.

Keywords: Conscious visual awareness; Inferior frontal junction; Intraparietal sulcus; Lateral occipital complex; Unconscious perception; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping
  • Brain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain* / physiology
  • Consciousness
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Visual Perception* / physiology

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