Differential Effects of Awareness and Task Relevance on Early and Late ERPs in a No-Report Visual Oddball Paradigm

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To date it is poorly understood how and when deviance processing interacts with awareness and task relevance. Furthermore, an important issue in the study of consciousness is the prevalent confound of conscious perception with the requirement of reporting it. This study addresses these topics using a no-report inattentional blindness paradigm with a visual oddball sequence of geometrical shapes presented to male and female human participants. Electrophysiological responses were obtained in three physically identical Phases A–C that differed only with respect to the instructions: (A) participants were uninformed about the shapes and attended an unrelated foreground task (inattentional blind), (B) were informed about the shapes but still attended the foreground task, and (C) attended the shapes. Conscious processing of shapes was indexed by the visual awareness negativity but not a P3. Deviance processing was associated with the visual mismatch negativity independently of consciousness and task relevance. The oddball P3, however, only emerged when the stimuli were task relevant, and was absent for consciously perceived but task irrelevant stimuli. The P3 thus does not represent a reliable marker of stimulus awareness. This result pattern supports the view of hierarchical predictive processing, where lower levels display automatic deviance processing, whereas higher levels require attention and task relevance.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT To react to potentially important changes in our environment it is fundamental to detect deviations from regularities of sensory input. It has yet to be understood how awareness and task relevance of this input interact with deviance processing. We investigated the role of awareness in deviance detection while at the same time circumventing the confound of awareness and report by means of a no-report paradigm. Our results suggest that early processes are elicited automatically, whereas, contrary to prominent theories, late processes do not depend on awareness but on task-based attention.

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