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Title: Neural mechanisms of visual awareness and their modulation by social threat
Author: Getov, Spas Vladimirov
ISNI:       0000 0004 9352 4435
Awarding Body: UCL (University College London)
Current Institution: University College London (University of London)
Date of Award: 2020
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The human brain can extract an enormous wealth of visual information from our surroundings. However, only a fraction of this immense data set ever becomes available to the observer’s awareness. How and why certain information is selected for awareness are questions under active investigation. Following two introductory chapters, this thesis contains six inter-related experimental chapters, through which I will explore two key outstanding questions in this field, using bistable perceptual paradigms to study conscious and non-conscious visual processing in healthy human volunteers. The first major theme focuses on adding new insight into the brain regions and networks that facilitate transfer between non-conscious and conscious modes of visual processing. In Chapters 3 and 4 I will use fMRI, both in task-related and resting-state conditions, to delineate areas, and their interactions (in terms of effective connectivity), which are relevant for transition between different conscious perceptual experiences. In Chapter 5 I will focus on one specific region in the proposed perceptual transition-related network (the frontal eye field) and explore its causal role in access to awareness using repetitive TMS. The second key question explored in this thesis is how social cues in the visual environment influence non-conscious visual processing as well as transition to conscious vision. In Chapter 6 I will study behavioural effects of non-conscious social cues from faces, and the relationship of these effects to focal brain anatomy. Based on finding slower perceptuomotor performance when non-conscious faces contain threatening cues in Chapter 6, I hypothesise that a defensive freezing response is engaged in such situations. The final two experimental chapters will explore the correlates of putative human freezing in the context of non-conscious social threat: using fMRI and psychophysiological measurements to study effects on perceptual transition in Chapter 7, and relating TMS-induced motor-evoked potentials and concurrent psychophysiological measurements to non-conscious perceptuomotor performance in Chapter 8. Taken together, the presented findings shed new light on the network of brain regions involved in transition between non-conscious and conscious modes of visual processing. In addition, they uncover novel mechanisms through which socially relevant visual cues shape our awareness of the visual world, with particular emphasis on the engagement of defensive responses by socially threatening stimuli. The concluding chapter discusses the implications of these findings and explores relevant avenues for future work.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available