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      How Awareness Changes the Relative Weights of Evidence During Human Decision-Making

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          A combined behavioral and brain imaging study shows how sensory awareness and stimulus visibility can influence the dynamics of decision-making in humans.


          Human decisions are based on accumulating evidence over time for different options. Here we ask a simple question: How is the accumulation of evidence affected by the level of awareness of the information? We examined the influence of awareness on decision-making using combined behavioral methods and magneto-encephalography (MEG). Participants were required to make decisions by accumulating evidence over a series of visually presented arrow stimuli whose visibility was modulated by masking. Behavioral results showed that participants could accumulate evidence under both high and low visibility. However, a top-down strategic modulation of the flow of incoming evidence was only present for stimuli with high visibility: once enough evidence had been accrued, participants strategically reduced the impact of new incoming stimuli. Also, decision-making speed and confidence were strongly modulated by the strength of the evidence for high-visible but not low-visible evidence, even though direct priming effects were identical for both types of stimuli. Neural recordings revealed that, while initial perceptual processing was independent of visibility, there was stronger top-down amplification for stimuli with high visibility than low visibility. Furthermore, neural markers of evidence accumulation over occipito-parietal cortex showed a strategic bias only for highly visible sensory information, speeding up processing and reducing neural computations related to the decision process. Our results indicate that the level of awareness of information changes decision-making: while accumulation of evidence already exists under low visibility conditions, high visibility allows evidence to be accumulated up to a higher level, leading to important strategical top-down changes in decision-making. Our results therefore suggest a potential role of awareness in deploying flexible strategies for biasing information acquisition in line with one's expectations and goals.

          Author Summary

          When making a decision, we gather evidence for the different options and ultimately choose on the basis of the accumulated evidence. A fundamental question is whether and how conscious awareness of the evidence changes this decision-making process. Here, we examined the influence of sensory awareness on decision-making using behavioral studies and magneto-encephalographic recordings in human participants. In our task, participants had to indicate the prevailing direction of five arrows presented on a screen that each pointed either left or right, and in different trials these arrows were either easy to see (high visibility) or difficult to see (low visibility). Behavioral and neural recordings show that evidence accumulation changed from a linear to a non-linear integration strategy with increasing stimulus visibility. In particular, the impact of later evidence was reduced when more evidence had been accrued, but only for highly visible information. By contrast, barely perceptible arrows contributed equally to a decision because participants needed to continue to accumulate evidence in order to make an accurate decision. These results suggest that consciousness may play a role in decision-making by biasing the accumulation of new evidence.

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          Most cited references 49

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          The distinct modes of vision offered by feedforward and recurrent processing.

          An analysis of response latencies shows that when an image is presented to the visual system, neuronal activity is rapidly routed to a large number of visual areas. However, the activity of cortical neurons is not determined by this feedforward sweep alone. Horizontal connections within areas, and higher areas providing feedback, result in dynamic changes in tuning. The differences between feedforward and recurrent processing could prove pivotal in understanding the distinctions between attentive and pre-attentive vision as well as between conscious and unconscious vision. The feedforward sweep rapidly groups feature constellations that are hardwired in the visual brain, yet is probably incapable of yielding visual awareness; in many cases, recurrent processing is necessary before the features of an object are attentively grouped and the stimulus can enter consciousness.
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            Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: a testable taxonomy.

            Of the many brain events evoked by a visual stimulus, which are specifically associated with conscious perception, and which merely reflect non-conscious processing? Several recent neuroimaging studies have contrasted conscious and non-conscious visual processing, but their results appear inconsistent. Some support a correlation of conscious perception with early occipital events, others with late parieto-frontal activity. Here we attempt to make sense of these dissenting results. On the basis of the global neuronal workspace hypothesis, we propose a taxonomy that distinguishes between vigilance and access to conscious report, as well as between subliminal, preconscious and conscious processing. We suggest that these distinctions map onto different neural mechanisms, and that conscious perception is systematically associated with surges of parieto-frontal activity causing top-down amplification.
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              On making the right choice: the deliberation-without-attention effect.

              Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing. On the basis of recent insights into the characteristics of conscious and unconscious thought, we tested the hypothesis that simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the "deliberation-without-attention" hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies on consumer choice, both in the laboratory as well as among actual shoppers, that purchases of complex products were viewed more favorably when decisions had been made in the absence of attentive deliberation.

                Author and article information

                Role: Academic Editor
                PLoS Biol
                PLoS Biology
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                November 2011
                November 2011
                22 November 2011
                : 9
                : 11
                [1 ]Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, the Netherlands
                [2 ]Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
                [3 ]Inserm, Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, Gif-sur-Yvette, France
                [4 ]Commissarìat à l'Energie Atomique, Neurospin Center, Gif-sur-Yvette, France
                [5 ]Cognitive Science Center Amsterdam, the Netherlands
                [6 ]Université Paris-Sud 11, Orsay, France
                [7 ]Collège de France, Paris, France
                University of Oregon, United States of America
                Author notes

                The author(s) have made the following declarations about their contributions: Conceived and designed the experiments: FdL SvG SD. Performed the experiments: FdL SvG. Analyzed the data: FdL SvG. Wrote the paper: FdL SvG VL SD.

                de Lange et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
                Page count
                Pages: 10
                Research Article
                Cognitive Neuroscience
                Decision Making

                Life sciences


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