Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Previous studies show that it is possible to attend to a stimulus without awareness of it. Whether attention and awareness are independent or have a specific relationship, however, remains debated. Here, we tested three aspects of visual attention with and without awareness of the visual stimulus. Metacontrast masking rendered participants either subjectively aware or not aware of the stimulus. Attention drawn to the stimulus was measured by using the stimulus as a cue in a spatial attention task. We found that attention was drawn to the stimulus regardless of whether or not people were aware of it. However, attention changed significantly in the absence of awareness in at least three ways. First, attention to a task-relevant stimulus was less stable over time. Second, inhibition of return, the automatic suppression of attention to a task-irrelevant stimulus, was reduced. Third, attention was more driven by the luminance contrast of the stimulus. These findings add to the growing information on the behavior of attention with and without awareness. The findings are also consistent with our recently proposed account of the relationship between attention and awareness. In the attention schema theory, awareness is the internal model of attention. Just as the brain contains a body schema that models the body and helps control the body, so it contains an attention schema that helps control attention. In that theory, in the absence of awareness, the control of attention should suffer in basic ways predictable from dynamical systems theory. The present results confirm some of those predictions.