Activity in Face-Responsive Brain Regions is Modulated by Invisible, Attended Faces: Evidence from Masked Priming

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It is often assumed that neural activity in face-responsive regions of primate cortex correlates with conscious perception of faces. However, whether such activity occurs without awareness is still debated. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in conjunction with a novel masked face priming paradigm, we observed neural modulations that could not be attributed to perceptual awareness. More specifically, we found reduced activity in several classic face-processing regions, including the “fusiform face area,” “occipital face area,” and superior temporal sulcus, when a face was preceded by a briefly flashed image of the same face, relative to a different face, even when 2 images of the same face differed. Importantly, unlike most previous studies, which have minimized awareness by using conditions of inattention, the present results occurred when the stimuli (the primes) were attended. By contrast, when primes were perceived consciously, in a long-lag priming paradigm, we found repetition-related activity increases in additional frontal and parietal regions. These data not only demonstrate that fMRI activity in face-responsive regions can be modulated independently of perceptual awareness, but also document where such subliminal face-processing occurs (i.e., restricted to face-responsive regions of occipital and temporal cortex) and to what extent (i.e., independent of the specific image).

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