Uncovering the Mechanisms of Conscious Face Perception: A Single-Trial Study of the N170 Responses
When a face is flashed to an observer, a large negative component is elicited in the occipitotemporal cortex at ∼170 ms from the onset of presentation (N170). Previous studies have shown that the average N170 is correlated with conscious face perception; however, the single-trial mechanisms underlying such modulation remain largely unexplored. Here, we studied in human subjects the average and the single-trial N170 responses to briefly flashed faces, coupled with backward masking and varying degrees of Gaussian noise. In the average evoked responses we observed that, at fixed levels of noise, supraliminal faces exhibited significantly larger N170 amplitudes than subliminal faces. Moreover, the average N170 amplitude decreased with noise level both for the perceived and the nonperceived faces. At the single-trial level, the N170 amplitude was modulated by conscious recognition, which allowed predicting the subjects' perceptual responses above chance. In contrast, the single-trial N170 amplitudes were not modulated by the amount of noise and the effect found in the average responses was due to different latency jitters, as confirmed with latency-corrected averages. Altogether, these results suggest that conscious face perception is correlated with a boost in the activity of face-selective neural assemblies, whereas the stimulus uncertainty introduced by the added noise decreases the timing consistency (but not the amplitude) of this activation.