No evidence for neural overlap between unconsciously processed and imagined stimuli


Visual representations can be generated via feedforward or feedback processes. The extent to which these processes result in overlapping representations remains unclear. Previous work has shown that imagined stimuli elicit similar representations as perceived stimuli throughout the visual cortex. However, while representations during imagery are indeed only caused by feedback processing, neural processing during perception is an interplay of both feedforward and feedback processing. This means that any representational overlap could be because of overlap in feedback processes. In the current study, we aimed to investigate this issue by characterizing the overlap between feedforward- and feedback-initiated category representations during imagined stimuli, conscious perception, and unconscious processing using fMRI in humans of either sex. While all three conditions elicited stimulus representations in left lateral occipital cortex (LOC), significant similarities were observed only between imagery and conscious perception in this area. Furthermore, connectivity analyses revealed stronger connectivity between frontal areas and left LOC during conscious perception and in imagery compared with unconscious processing. Together, these findings can be explained by the idea that long-range feedback modifies visual representations, thereby reducing representational overlap between purely feedforward- and feedback-initiated stimulus representations measured by fMRI. Neural representations influenced by feedback, either stimulus driven (perception) or purely internally driven (imagery), are, however, relatively similar.