Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The level of processing hypothesis (LoP) proposes that the transition from unaware to aware visual perception is graded for low-level (i.e., energy, features) stimulus whereas dichotomous for high-level (i.e., letters, words, meaning) stimulus. In this study, we explore the behavioral patterns and neural correlates associated with different depths (i.e., low vs. high) of stimulus processing. The low-level stimulus condition consisted of identifying the color (i.e., blue/blueish vs. red/reddish) of the target, and the high-level stimulus condition consisted of identifying stimulus category (animal vs. object). Behavioral results showed that the levels of processing manipulation produced significant differences in both the awareness rating distributions and accuracy performances between tasks, the low-level task producing more intermediate subjective ratings and linearly increasing accuracy performances and the high-level task producing less intermediate ratings and a more nonlinear pattern for accuracies. The electrophysiological recordings revealed two correlates of visual awareness, an enhanced posterior negativity in the N200 time window (visual awareness negativity [VAN]), and an enhanced positivity in the P3 time window (late positivity [LP]). The analyses showed a double dissociation between awareness and the level of processing hypothesis manipulation: Awareness modulated VAN amplitudes only in the low-level color task, whereas LP amplitude modulations were observed only in the higher level category task. These findings are compatible with a two-stage microgenesis model of conscious perception, where an early elementary phenomenal sensation of the stimulus (i.e., the subjective perception of color) would be indexed by VAN, whereas stimulus' higher level properties (i.e., the category of the target) would be reflected in the LP in a later latency range.