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Curr Biol. 2006 Dec 5;16(23):2332-6.

The scope and limits of top-down attention in unconscious visual processing.

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Universiteit Utrecht, Helmholtz Institute, Department of Experimental Psychology, Heidelberglaan 2 NL, 3584 CS Utrecht, The Netherlands.


Attentional selection plays a critical role in conscious perception. When attention is diverted, even salient stimuli fail to reach visual awareness. Attention can be voluntarily directed to a spatial location or a visual feature for facilitating the processing of information relevant to current goals. In everyday situations, attention and awareness are tightly coupled. This has led some to suggest that attention and awareness might be based on a common neural foundation, whereas others argue that they are mediated by distinct mechanisms. A body of evidence shows that visual stimuli can be processed at multiple stages of the visual-processing streams without evoking visual awareness. To illuminate the relationship between visual attention and conscious perception, we investigated whether top-down attention can target and modulate the neural representations of unconsciously processed visual stimuli. Our experiments show that spatial attention can target only consciously perceived stimuli, whereas feature-based attention can modulate the processing of invisible stimuli. The attentional modulation of unconscious signals implies that attention and awareness can be dissociated, challenging a simplistic view of the boundary between conscious and unconscious visual processing.

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