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Probing Visual Perception Outside of Conscious Awareness

Abstract: Conscious visual awareness seems to occupy center stage in our perceptual world, guiding our actions and channeling our thoughts. But is that impression a misleading illusion? To rephrase the question in a tractable form, what aspects of visual processing transpire outside of awareness? Psychologists have at their disposal an arsenal of techniques for dissociating optical input and visual awareness, and my talk will touch on the strengths and weaknesses of some of those techniques. But I will focus primarily on the beguiling phenomenon called binocular rivalry, wherein perceptual dominance fluctuates between conflicting visual images presented separately to the two eyes. I will highlight some surprising discoveries that have been made using rivalry to dissociate physical stimulation from perceptual awareness, including the impact of affective and semantic content on suppression of a stimulus from awareness. I will close by describing results illuminating possible neural concomitants of fluctuations in visual perception during rivalry and will offer some thoughts on the implications of those results for the larger question of neural correlates of consciousness.


University of Pennsylvania