Cortical Networks Involved in Visual Awareness Independently of Visual Attention

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It is now well established that visual attention, as measured with standard spatial attention tasks, and visual awareness, as measured by report, can be dissociated. It is possible to attend to a stimulus with no reported awareness of the stimulus. We used a behavioral paradigm in which people were aware of a stimulus in one condition and unaware of it in another condition, but the stimulus drew a similar amount of spatial attention in both conditions. The paradigm allowed us to test for brain regions active in association with awareness independent of level of attention. Participants performed the task in an MRI scanner. We looked for brain regions that were more active in the aware than the unaware trials. The largest cluster of activity was obtained in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) bilaterally. Local independent component analysis (ICA) revealed that this activity contained three distinct, but overlapping, components: a bilateral, anterior component; a left dorsal component; and a right dorsal component. These components had brain-wide functional connectivity that partially overlapped the ventral attention network and the frontoparietal control network. In contrast, no significant activity in association with awareness was found in the banks of the intraparietal sulcus, a region connected to the dorsal attention network and traditionally associated with attention control. These results show the importance of separating awareness and attention when testing for cortical substrates. They are also consistent with a recent proposal that awareness is associated with ventral attention areas, especially in the TPJ.


This article was originally published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, volume 113, issue 48, in 2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611505113


National Academy of Sciences