In masking, a stimulus is rendered invisible through the presentation of a second stimulus shortly after the first. Over the years, authors have typically explained masking by postulating some early disruption process. In these feedforward-type explanations, the mask somehow “catches up” with the target stimulus, disrupting its processing either through lateral or interchannel inhibition. However, studies from recent years indicate that visual perception—and most notably visual awareness itself—may depend strongly on cortico-cortical feedback connections from higher to lower visual areas. This has led some researchers to propose that masking derives its effectiveness from selectively interrupting these reentrant processes. In this experiment, we used electroencephalogram measurements to determine what happens in the human visual cortex during detection of a texture-defined square under nonmasked (seen) and masked (unseen) conditions. Electro-encephalogram derivatives that are typically associated with reentrant processing turn out to be absent in the masked condition. Moreover, extrastriate visual areas are still activated early on by both seen and unseen stimuli, as shown by scalp surface Laplacian current source-density maps. This conclusively shows that feedforward processing is preserved, even when subject performance is at chance as determined by objective measures. From these results, we conclude that masking derives its effectiveness, at least partly, from disrupting reentrant processing, thereby interfering with the neural mechanisms of figure-ground segmentation and visual awareness itself.

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