Most of the proposed neural correlates of visual awareness do not explicitly distinguish top-down attention from awareness per se. However, several authors have started to point at the need to disambiguate visual awareness and spatial attention. Experimental evidence supporting their possible neural dissociation has remained sparse. Such evidence is now provided by a nice piece of work from Wyart and Tallon-Baudry:
To what extent does what we consciously see depend on where we attend to? Psychologists have long stressed the tight relationship between visual awareness and spatial attention at the behavioral level. However, the amount of overlap between their neural correlates remains a matter of debate. We recorded magnetoencephalographic signals while human subjects attended toward or away from faint stimuli that were reported as consciously seen only half of the time. Visually identical stimuli could thus be attended or not and consciously seen or not. Although attended stimuli were consciously seen slightly more often than unattended ones, the factorial analysis of stimulus-induced oscillatory brain activity revealed distinct and independent neural correlates of visual awareness and spatial attention at different frequencies in the gamma range (30–150 Hz). Whether attended or not, consciously seen stimuli induced increased mid-frequency gamma-band activity over the contralateral visual cortex, whereas spatial attention modulated high-frequency gamma-band activity in response to both consciously seen and unseen stimuli. A parametric analysis of the data at the single-trial level confirmed that the awareness-related mid-frequency activity drove the seen–unseen decision but also revealed a small influence of the attention-related high-frequency activity on the decision. These results suggest that subjective visual experience is shaped by the cumulative contribution of two processes operating independently at the neural level, one reflecting visual awareness per se and the other reflecting spatial attention.