Cognitive models of attention propose that visual perception is a product of two stages of visual processing: early operations permit rapid initial categorization of the visual world, while later attention-demanding capacity-limited stages are necessary for the conscious report of the stimuli. Here we used the attentional blink paradigm and fMRI to neurally distinguish these two stages of vision. Subjects detected a face target and a scene target presented rapidly among distractors at fixation. Although the second, scene target frequently went undetected by the subjects, it nonetheless activated regions of the medial temporal cortex involved in high-level scene representations, the parahippocampal place area (PPA). This PPA activation was amplified when the stimulus was consciously perceived. By contrast, the frontal cortex was activated only when scenes were successfully reported. These results suggest that medial temporal cortex permits rapid categorization of the visual input, while the frontal cortex is part of a capacity-limited attentional bottleneck to conscious report.
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