Sensory and response contributions to visual awareness in extinction

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Brain-damaged patients may extinguish contralesional stimuli when ipsilesional stimuli are presented simultaneously. Most theories of extinction postulate that stimuli compete for pathologically limited attentional resources with a bias to process ipsilesional over contralesional stimuli. Implicit in this view is the idea that responses follow the outcome of an earlier competition between inputs. In the current study of two patients, we used signal detection analyses to test the hypothesis that response criteria and response modalities also contribute to visual awareness. We found that identification was more sensitive than detection in uncovering deficits of contralesional awareness. Extinction was worse with bilateral stimuli when the ipsilesional stimulus was identical or similar to the target than when it was dissimilar. This diminished awareness was more likely to reflect a shift towards more conservative responses rather than diminished discrimination of contralesional stimuli. By contrast, one patient was better able to discriminate contralesional stimuli when using his contralesional limb to indicate awareness of targets than when using his ipsilesional limb. These data indicate that the nature of stimuli can modulate response criteria and the motor response can affect the sensory discriminability. Sensory discrimination and response output are not organized in a simple serial manner. Rather, input and output parameters interact in complicated ways to produce visual awareness. Visual awareness itself appears to be the outcome of two bottlenecks in processing, one having to do with sensory processing that may be covert and the other having to do with decision making, which by definition is overt. Finally, we advocate the use of signal detection analyses in studies of extinction, a method that has been surprisingly neglected in this line of research.

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