Any information represented in the brain holds the potential to influence behavior. It is therefore of broad interest to determine the extent and quality of neural processing of stimulus input that occurs with and without awareness. The attentional blink is a useful tool for dissociating neural and behavioral measures of perceptual visual processing across conditions of awareness. The extent of higher-order visual information beyond basic sensory signaling that is processed during the attentional blink remains controversial. To determine what neural processing at the level of visual-object categorization occurs in the absence of awareness, electrophysiological responses to images of faces and houses were recorded both within and outside the attentional blink period during a rapid serial visual presentation stream. Electrophysiological results were sorted according to behavioral performance (correctly identified targets vs. missed targets) within these blink and nonblink periods. An early index of face-specific processing (the N170, 140- to 220-msec poststimulus) was observed regardless of whether the participant demonstrated awareness of the stimulus, whereas a later face-specific effect with the same topographic distribution (500- to 700-msec poststimulus) was only seen for accurate behavioral discrimination of the stimulus content. The present findings suggest a multistage process of object-category processing, with only the later phase being associated with explicit visual awareness.

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