The aim of the present study was to dissociate the ERP (Event Related Potentials) correlates of subjective awareness from those of unconscious perception. In a backward masking paradigm, participants first produced a forced-choice response to the location of a liminal target presented for an individually calibrated duration, and then reported on their subjective awareness of the target's presence. We recorded (Event-Related Potentials) ERPs and compared the ERP waves when observers reported being aware vs. unaware of the target but localized it correctly, thereby isolating the neural correlates of subjective awareness while controlling for differences in objective performance. In addition, we compared the ERPs when participants were subjectively unaware of the target's presence and localized it correctly versus incorrectly, thereby isolating the neural correlates of unconscious perception. All conditions involved stimuli that were physically identical and were presented for the same duration. Both behavioral measures were associated with modulation of the amplitude of the P3 component of the ERP. Importantly, this modulation was widely spread across all scalp locations for subjective awareness, but was restricted to the parietal electrodes for unconscious perception. These results indicate that liminal stimuli that do not affect performance undergo considerable processing and that subjective awareness is associated with a late wave of activation with widely distributed topography.

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