It has been proposed that visual awareness negativity (VAN), which is an early ERP component, constitutes a neural correlate of visual consciousness that is independent of perceptual and cognitive mechanisms. In the present study, we investigated whether VAN is indeed a specific marker of phenomenal awareness or rather reflects the involvement of attention. To this end, we reanalyzed data collected in a previously published EEG experiment in which awareness of visual stimuli and two aspects that define attentional involvement, namely, the inherent saliency and task relevance of a stimulus, were manipulated orthogonally. During the experimental procedure, participants (n = 41) were presented with images of faces that were backward-masked or unmasked, fearful or neutral, and defined as task-relevant targets or task-irrelevant distractors. Single-trial ERP analysis revealed that VAN was highly dependent on attentional manipulations in the early time window (140–200 msec), up to the point that the effect of awareness was not observed for attentionally irrelevant stimuli (i.e., neutral faces presented as distractors). In the late time window (200–350 msec), VAN was present in all attentional conditions, but its amplitude was significantly higher in response to fearful faces and task-relevant face images than in response to neutral ones and task-irrelevant ones, respectively. In conclusion, we demonstrate that the amplitude of VAN is highly dependent on both exogenous (stimulus saliency) and endogenous attention (task requirements). Our results challenge the view that VAN constitutes an attention-independent correlate of phenomenal awareness.

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