Which factors determine whether a stimulus is consciously perceived or unconsciously processed? Here, I investigate how previous experience on two different time scales – long term experience over the course of several days, and short term experience based on the previous trial – impact conscious perception. Regarding long term experience, I investigate how perceptual learning does not only change the capacity to process stimuli, but also the capacity to consciously perceive them. To this end, subjects are trained extensively to discriminate between masked stimuli, and concurrently rate their subjective experience. Both the ability to discriminate the stimuli as well as subjective awareness of the stimuli increase as a function of training. However, these two effects are not simple byproducts of each other. On the contrary, they display different time courses, with above chance discrimination performance emerging before subjective experience; importantly, the two learning effects also rely on different circuits in the brain: Moving the stimuli outside the trained receptive field size abolishes the learning effects on discrimination ability, but preserves the learning effects on subjective awareness.
This indicates that the receptive fields serving subjective experience are larger than the ones serving objective performance, and that the channels through which they receive their information are arranged in parallel. Regarding short term experience, I investigate how memory based predictions arising from information acquired on the trial before affect visibility and the neural correlates of consciousness. To this end, I vary stimulus evidence as well as predictability and acquire electroencephalographic data.
A comparison of the neural processes distinguishing consciously perceived from unperceived trials with and without predictions reveals that predictions speed up processing, thus shifting the neural correlates forward in time. Thus, the neural correlates of consciousness display a previously unappreciated flexibility in time and do not arise invariably late as had been predicted by some theorists.
Admittedly, however, previous experience does not always stabilize perception. Instead, previous experience can have the reverse effect: Seeing the opposite of what was there, as in so-called repulsive aftereffects. Here, I investigate what determines the direction of previous experience using multistable stimuli. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment, I find that a widespread network of frontal, parietal, and ventral occipital brain areas is involved in perceptual stabilization, whereas the reverse effect is only evident in extrastriate cortex. This areal separation possibly endows the brain with the flexibility to switch between exploiting already available information and emphasizing the new.
Taken together, my data show that conscious perception and its neuronal correlates display a remarkable degree of flexibility and plasticity, which should be taken into account in future theories of consciousness.