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Unaware Processing of Tools in the Neural System for Object-Directed Action Representation

Unaware Processing of Tools in the Neural System for Object-Directed Action Representation

Journal of Neuroscience 37(44): 10712-10724

The hypothesis that the brain constitutively encodes observed manipulable objects for the actions they afford is still debated. Yet, crucial evidence demonstrating that, even in the absence of perceptual awareness, the mere visual appearance of a manipulable object triggers a visuomotor coding in the action representation system including the premotor cortex, has hitherto not been provided. In this fMRI study, we instantiated reliable unaware visual perception conditions by means of continuous flash suppression, and we tested in 24 healthy human participants (13 females) whether the visuomotor object-directed action representation system that includes left-hemispheric premotor, parietal, and posterior temporal cortices is activated even under subliminal perceptual conditions. We found consistent activation in the target visuomotor cortices, both with and without perceptual awareness, specifically for pictures of manipulable versus non-manipulable objects. By means of a multivariate searchlight analysis, we also found that the brain activation patterns in this visuomotor network enabled the decoding of manipulable versus non-manipulable object picture processing, both with and without awareness. These findings demonstrate the intimate neural coupling between visual perception and motor representation that underlies manipulable object processing: manipulable object stimuli specifically engage the visuomotor object-directed action representation system, in a constitutive manner that is independent from perceptual awareness. This perceptuo-motor coupling endows the brain with an efficient mechanism for monitoring and planning reactions to external stimuli in the absence of awareness.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Our brain constantly encodes the visual information that hits the retina, leading to a stimulus-specific activation of sensory and semantic representations, even for objects that we do not consciously perceive. Do these unconscious representations encompass the motor programming of actions that could be accomplished congruently with the objects' functions? In this fMRI study, we instantiated unaware visual perception conditions, by dynamically suppressing the visibility of manipulable object pictures with mondrian masks. Despite escaping conscious perception, manipulable objects activated an object-directed action representation system that includes left-hemispheric premotor, parietal, and posterior temporal cortices. This demonstrates that visuomotor encoding occurs independently of conscious object perception.

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Accession: 060437681

Download citation: RISBibTeXText

PMID: 28978664

DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1061-17.2017

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