The threshold for conscious report: Signal loss and response bias in visual and frontal cortex

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Science  04 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6388, pp. 537-542
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar7186

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Setting conscious perception alight

What are the neuronal mechanisms that enable conscious perception? Why do some images remain subliminal? Van Vugt et al. trained monkeys to detect low-contrast images and compared neuronal activity in brain areas V1, V4, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Some stimuli made it into consciousness, and others were subliminal depending on their propagation, which can be variable for weak stimuli (see the Perspective by Mashour). Strongly propagated stimuli initiated a state in the higher brain areas called “ignition” that caused information about a brief stimulus to become sustained and broadcasted back through recurrent interactions between many brain areas.

Science, this issue p. 537; see also p. 493


Why are some visual stimuli consciously detected, whereas others remain subliminal? We investigated the fate of weak visual stimuli in the visual and frontal cortex of awake monkeys trained to report stimulus presence. Reported stimuli were associated with strong sustained activity in the frontal cortex, and frontal activity was weaker and quickly decayed for unreported stimuli. Information about weak stimuli could be lost at successive stages en route from the visual to the frontal cortex, and these propagation failures were confirmed through microstimulation of area V1. Fluctuations in response bias and sensitivity during perception of identical stimuli were traced back to prestimulus brain-state markers. A model in which stimuli become consciously reportable when they elicit a nonlinear ignition process in higher cortical areas explained our results.

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