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Title: Top-down control of visual attention and awareness : cognitive and neural mechanisms
Author: Carmel, David Podhorzer
ISNI:       0000 0001 3493 2592
Awarding Body: University of London
Current Institution: University College London (University of London)
Date of Award: 2007
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Recent behavioural and neural research suggests that awareness is intimately related to top-down cognitive functions such as attention. Here I present a characterization of this relationship, guided by Lavie's load theory. Load theory proposes that perception has limited capacity but proceeds automatically on all stimuli (whether relevant to the task at hand or not) until capacity is exhausted, and that the allocation of processing resources to certain stimuli (rather than to other, competing ones) is guided by executive control functions such as working memory. The theory predicts that increasing the perceptual load of a task will consume capacity, therefore reducing processing of stimuli external to that task it also predicts that increasing working memory load will impair executive control, leading to increased processing of salient ignored stimuli. Here I show that these predictions hold not only for indirect measures of perceptual processing, as has been demonstrated previously, but also for visual awareness - the subjective experience of seeing and being able to report the nature of a visual stimulus. I find that under high perceptual load, observers become less aware of the very presence of other stimuli, even when these stimuli are fully expected and serve as targets. I also show that perceptual load affects the temporal resolution of visual awareness - under high load, the ability to detect a temporal pattern (luminance flicker) is reduced, leading to a subjective percept of steady illumination. In a neuroimaging study, I show that subjective awareness of flicker is associated with activity in frontal and parietal brain regions previously associated with attention and awareness. Next, I investigate the role of executive control in visual awareness by examining the effect of working memory load on binocular rivalry, a fundamental form of visual competition. I find that high working memory load reduces dominance durations in rivalry, suggesting that working memory may serve to maintain perceptual biases during competitive interactions in visual awareness. Finally, I use Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to establish a causal role for the previously described right parietal involvement in the control of binocular rivalry. This research therefore indicates that top- down cognitive and neural mechanisms are involved in determining whether visual stimuli will reach awareness, and in shaping the subjective nature of the experience such stimuli evoke.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available