Our senses are continuously bombarded with more information than our brain can process up to the level of awareness. The present study aimed to enhance understanding on how attentional selection shapes conscious access under conditions of rapidly changing input. Using an attention task, EEG, and multivariate decoding of individual target- and distractor-defining features, we specifically examined dynamic changes in the representation of targets and distractors as a function of conscious access and the task-relevance (target or distractor) of the preceding item in the RSVP stream. At the behavioral level, replicating previous work and suggestive of a flexible gating mechanism, we found a significant impairment in conscious access to targets (T2) that were preceded by a target (T1) followed by one or two distractors (i.e., the attentional blink), but striking facilitation of conscious access to targets shown directly after another target (i.e., lag-1 sparing and blink reversal). At the neural level, conscious access to T2 was associated with enhanced early- and late-stage T1 representations and enhanced late-stage D1 representations, and interestingly, could be predicted based on the pattern of EEG activation well before T1 was presented. Yet, across task conditions, we did not find convincing evidence for the notion that conscious access is affected by rapid top-down selection-related modulations of the strength of early sensory representations induced by the preceding visual event. These results cannot easily be explained by existing accounts of how attentional selection shapes conscious access under rapidly changing input conditions, and have important implications for theories of the attentional blink and consciousness more generally.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience