Electrophysiological correlates of consciousness

Sammanfattning: How does the brain enable us to experience seeing or hearing a stimulus? If a stimulus is repeatedly presented at the awareness threshold, subjects will report that they are aware of the stimulus on half of the presentations. Electroencephalography (EEG) can be used to non-invasively record neural activity as event-related potentials (ERPs). The contrastive analysis of neural activity to trials rated as aware minus neural activity to trials rated as unaware reveals the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). Research on the NCC in vision has resulted in two ERPs: an early negative difference wave (visual awareness negativity, VAN) and a subsequent late positivity (LP). Visual awareness may be reflected by one or both of these ERPs. However, the contrastive analysis (aware minus unaware) may not isolate the NCC because it arguably compares aware processing with a combination of unaware processing and no processing. In support, previous research that tried to isolate a comparison between aware processing and unaware processing found that LP was the only NCC. However, subsequent replications suggested VAN and LP as NCC. Because of these mixed results, we followed up on these studies in Study I with a preregistered design that manipulated stimulus size. Results showed VAN and LP as NCC. The findings provide evidence for VAN as an early NCC.Another main goal of this thesis was to investigate auditory awareness. In Study II, an auditory threshold task was used, and the contrastive analysis revealed an early negative difference wave (auditory awareness negativity, AAN) and LP. These ERPs are comparable to VAN and LP in vision. Because post-perceptual processes related to responding may confound the NCC in contrastive analysis, no-response tasks can be used to isolate awareness-related activity. In vision, a previous study in which the manual response requirement was manipulated showed effects on LP but not on VAN. In Study III, we used a similar task with auditory stimuli at the awareness threshold. Results suggested that AAN and LP are unaffected by the response manipulation. However, the present no-response task may not be optimal for removing post-perceptual processing because subjects need to reflect on their experience even if they do not need to respond manually. Additional analyses that attempted source localization of the AAN suggested that it is generated in auditory cortex.From a theoretical perspective, one view of these results is that VAN and AAN reflect local recurrent processing and that this is the neural signature of awareness, whereas LP reflects global recurrent processing that enables reporting. Other views suggest that VAN and AAN merely reflect preconscious processes, whereas LP and global recurrent processing reflect consciousness. The studies described in this thesis do not support one theory over the other but provide robust evidence for early neural correlates of visual and auditory awareness.