Unconscious word processing engages a distributed network of brain regions

Michele T. Diaz, Gregory McCarthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


A briefly exposed visual stimulus may not be consciously perceived if it is preceded and followed by a dissimilar visual pattern or mask. Despite the subject's lack of awareness, prior behavioral studies have shown that such masked stimuli, nevertheless, engage domain-specific processes [Dehaene, S., Naccache, L., Cohen, L., Le Bihan, D., Mangin, J.-F., Poline, J.-B., et al. Cerebral mechanisms of word masking and unconscious repetition priming. Nature Neuroscience, 4, 752-758, 2001; Bar, M., & Biederman, I. Subliminal visual priming. Psychological Science, 9, 464-469, 1998; Dehaene, S., Naccache, L., Le Clec'H, G., Koechlin, E., Mueller, M., Dehaene-Lambertz, G., et al. Imaging unconscious semantic priming. Nature, 395, 597-600, 1998; Whalen, P. J., Rauch, S. L., Etcoff, N. L., McInerney, S. C., Lee, M. B., & Jenike, M. A. Masked presentations of emotional facial expressions modulate amygdala activity without explicit knowledge. Journal of Neuroscience, 18, 411-418, 1998; Marcel, A. J. Conscious and unconscious perception: Experiments on visual masking and word recognition. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 197-237, 1983]. Masking thus provides a method for identifying language processes that are preattentive and automatic. Functional magnetic resonance imaging used in concert with masking may identify brain regions engaged by these unconscious language processes. In an adaptation design, subjects viewed a continuous stream of masked words and masked nonwords while performing an unrelated detection task, in which they were asked to make a response to a visible colored nonword stimulus (i.e., ampersands in red or blue font). Most trials were masked nonwords and masked words were presented once every 12-15 sec. The task ensured participant engagement, while the masked nonword baseline controlled for perceptual and orthographic processing. Participants were naïve to the purpose of the experiment and testing indicated that they did not consciously perceive either the words or nonwords. Masked words, but not masked nonwords, strongly activated left hemisphere language regions, including Broca's area, the angular gyrus, and the lateral temporal lobe. Differential activation of the posterior corpus callosum was also observed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1768-1775
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of cognitive neuroscience
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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