Conscious awareness is required for holistic face processing

Vadim Axelrod, Geraint Rees

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Investigating the limits of unconscious processing is essential to understand the function of consciousness. Here, we explored whether holistic face processing, a mechanism believed to be important for face processing in general, can be accomplished unconsciously. Using a novel "eyes-face" stimulus we tested whether discrimination of pairs of eyes was influenced by the surrounding face context. While the eyes were fully visible, the faces that provided context could be rendered invisible through continuous flash suppression. Two experiments with three different sets of face stimuli and a subliminal learning procedure converged to show that invisible faces did not influence perception of visible eyes. In contrast, surrounding faces, when they were clearly visible, strongly influenced perception of the eyes. Thus, we conclude that conscious awareness might be a prerequisite for holistic face processing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)233-245
Number of pages13
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by the Israeli Center of Research Excellence in Cognitive Sciences (VA), Daniel Turnberg Travel Fellowship (VA) and the Wellcome Trust (GR). We are grateful Galit Yovel for permission to conduct the experiments in her laboratory (Tel-Aviv University). We thank Aidan Horner for the advise. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers and Axel Cleeremans (Consciousness and Cognition editor) for their valuable suggestions.


  • Holistic face processing
  • Unconscious processing
  • Visual awareness


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