Supraliminal but No Subliminal Priming by High-Spatial Frequency Faces in a Face-Sex Discrimination Task


It has been argued that visual subliminal processing of face-inherent sex information might depend on the retino-collicular projection. In the current study, we tested this possibility. Based on the known exclusive sensitivity of the retino-collicular projection for low spatial frequencies (LSF), we derived the following predictions. First, masked and, therefore, subliminal high-spatial frequency (HSF) face primes would not be processed, but, secondly, masked unfiltered face primes, thirdly, masked LSF face primes, and, fourthly, unmasked HSF primes should be processed and should lead to a congruence effect—that is, faster responses (better performance) in congruent conditions, with face primes and face targets of the same sex, as compared to incongruent conditions, with face primes and face targets of different sexes. These predictions were borne out in altogether three experiments. In Experiment 1, we observed that masked unfiltered primes created a congruence effect and that masked HSF primes failed to do so. In Experiment 2, we found that masked unfiltered primes and masked LSF primes both created significant congruence effects of about the same size. Finally, in Experiment 3, we demonstrated that unmasked HSF primes led to a congruence effect, whereas masked HSF primes failed to do so. Also, masking led to the subliminal presentation of the primes, as indicated by the fact that our participants were unaware of the masked but not the unmasked face primes. Together, these findings are in general agreement with an assumed origin of subliminal (or unaware) face processing along the magno-cellular projection of the human visual system.

Share and Cite:

Khalid, S. , Ansorge, U. and Finkbeiner, M. (2015) Supraliminal but No Subliminal Priming by High-Spatial Frequency Faces in a Face-Sex Discrimination Task. Psychology, 6, 1486-1509. doi: 10.4236/psych.2015.612146.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Ansorge, U., Horstmann, G., & Worschech, F. (2010). Attentional Capture by Masked Color Singletons. Vision Research, 50, 2015-2027.
[2] Ansorge, U., Kunde, W., & Kiefer, M. (2014). Unconscious Vision and Executive Control: How Unconscious Processing and Conscious Action Control Interact. Consciousness and Cognition, 27, 268-287.
[3] Ansorge, U., & Neumann, O. (2005). Intentions Determine the Effects of Invisible Metacontrast-Masked Primes: Evidence for Top-Down Contingencies in a Peripheral Cueing Task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 31, 762-777.
[4] Bar, M. (2003). A Cortical Mechanism for Triggering Top-Down Facilitation in Visual Object Recognition. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15, 600-609.
[5] Breitmeyer, B. G., & Ögmen, H. (2006). Visual Masking: Time Slices through Conscious and Unconscious Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[6] Bullier, J. (2001). Integrated Model of Visual Processing. Brain Research Reviews, 36, 96-107.
[7] Croner, L. J., & Kaplan, E. (1995). Receptive Fields of P and M Ganglion Cells across the Primate Retina. Vision Research, 35, 7-24.
[8] de Gardelle, V., & Kouider, S. (2010). How Spatial Frequencies and Visual Awareness Interact during Face Processing. Psychological Science, 21, 58-66.
[9] de Gelder, B., Vroomen, J., Pourtois, G., & Weiskrantz, L. (1999). Non-Conscious Recognition of Affect in the Absence of Striate Cortex. NeuroReport, 10, 3759-3763.
[10] Dehaene, S., & Naccache, L. (2001). Towards a Cognitive Neuroscience of Consciousness: Basic Evidence and a Workspace Framework. Cognition, 79, 1-37.
[11] Deruelle, C., & Fagot, J. (2005). Categorizing Facial Identities, Emotions, and Genders: Attention to High- and Low-Spatial Frequencies by Children and Adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 90, 172-184.
[12] Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M., & Elmehed, K. (2000). Unconscious Facial Reactions to Emotional Facial Expressions. Psychological Science, 11, 86-89.
[13] Dixon, N. F. (1971). Subliminal Perception: The Nature of a Controversy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
[14] Dolan, R. J., Fletcher, P., Morris, J., Kapur, N., Deakin, J. F. W., & Frith, C. D. (1996). Neural Activation during Covert Processing of Positive Emotional Facial Expressions. NeuroImage, 4, 194-200.
[15] Finkbeiner, M., & Palermo, R. (2009). The Role of Spatial Attention in Nonconscious Processing: A Comparison of Face and Non-Face Stimuli. Psychological Science, 20, 42-51.
[16] Forster, K. I., & Davis, C. (1984). Repetition Priming and Frequency Attenuation in Lexical Access. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 10, 680-698.
[17] Goffaux, V., Jemel, B., Jacques, C., Rossion, B., & Schyns, P. G. (2003). ERP Evidence for Task Modulation on Face Perceptual Processing at Different Spatial Scales. Cognitive Science, 27, 313-325.
[18] Fuchs, I., Theeuwes, J., & Ansorge, U. (2013). Exogenous Attentional Capture by Subliminal Abrupt-Onset Cues: Evidence from Contrast-Polarity Independent Cueing Effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 39, 974-988.
[19] Graham, D. J., & Redies, C. (2010). Statistical Regularities in Art: Relations with Visual Coding and Perception. Vision Research, 50, 1503-1509.
[20] Green, D. M., & Swets, J. A. (1966). Signal Detection Theory and Psychophysics. New York: Wiley.
[21] Greenwald, A. G., Draine, S. C., & Abrams, R. L. (1996). Three Cognitive Markers of Unconscious Semantic Activation. Science, 273, 1699-1702.
[22] Johnson, M. H. (2005). Subcortical Face Processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 766-774.
[23] Jolij, J., & Lamme, V. A. (2005). Repression of Unconscious Information by Conscious Processing: Evidence from Affective Blindsight Induced by Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102, 10747-10751.
[24] Kanwisher, N., & Yovel, G. (2009). The Fusiform Face Area: A Cortical Region Specified for the Perception of Faces. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B—Biological Sciences, 361, 2109-2128.
[25] Kaplan, E., & Shapley, R. M. (1986). The Primate Retina Contains two Types of Ganglion Cells, with Low and High Contrast Sensitivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 83, 2755-2757.
[26] Kawahara, J., Zuvic, S. M., Enns, J. T., & Di Lollo, V. (2003). Task Switching Mediates the Attentional Blink Even without Backward Masking. Perception & Psychophysics, 65, 339-351.
[27] Keysers, C., & Perrett, D. I. (2002). Visual Masking and RSVP Reveal Neural Competition. Trends in Cognitive Science, 6, 120-125.
[28] Khalid, S., Finkbeiner, M., König, P., & Ansorge, U. (2013). Subcortical Human Face Processing? Evidence from Masked Priming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 39, 989-1002.
[29] Kiefer, M., & Brendel, D. (2006). Attentional Modulation of Unconscious “Automatic” Processes: Evidence from Event-Related Potentials in a Masked Priming Paradigm. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 184-198.
[30] Kiss, M., & Eimer, M. (2008). ERPs Reveal Subliminal Processing of Fearful Faces. Psychophysiology, 45, 318-326.
[31] Kouider, S., Eger, E., Dolan, R. J., & Henson, R. N. (2009). Activity in Face-Responsible Brain Regions by Invisible, Attended Faces: Evidence from Masked Priming. Cerebral Cortex, 19, 13-23.
[32] Kunde, W., Kiesel, A., & Hoffmann, J. (2003). Conscious Control over the Content of Unconscious Cognition. Cognition, 88, 223-242.
[33] Laeng, B., Profeti, I., Sæther, L., Adolfsdottir, S., Lundervold, A. J., Vangberg, T., Øvervoll, M., Johnsen, S. H., & Waterloo, K. (2010). Invisible Expressions Evoke Core Impressions. Emotion, 10, 573-586.
[34] Lamme, V. A. F., & Roelfsema, P. R. (2000). The Distinct Modes of Vision Offered by Feedforward and Recurrent Processing. Trends in Neurosciences, 23, 571-579.
[35] Livingstone, M., & Hubel, D. (1988). Segregation of Form, Color, Movement, and Depth: Anatomy, Physiology, and Perception. Science, 240, 740-749.
[36] Lundqvist, D., Flykt, A., & Öhman, A. (1998). The Karolinska Directed Emotional Faces—KDEF (CD ROM). Stockholm: Karolinska Institute, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Psychology Section.
[37] McCarthy, G., Puce, A., Gore, J. C., & Allison, T. (1997). Face-Specific Processing in Human Fusiform Gyrus. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 9, 605-610.
[38] Merigan, W. H., & Maunsell, J. (1993). How Parallel Are the Primate Visual Pathways? Annual Review of Neuroscience, 16, 369-402.
[39] Morris, J. S., Öhman, A., & Dolan, R. J. (1999). A Subcortical Pathway to the Right Amygdala Mediating “Unseen” Fear. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 96, 1680-1685.
[40] Mulckhuyse, M., & Theeuwes, J. (2010). Unconscious Orienting to Exogenous Cues: A Review of the Literature. Acta Psychologica, 143, 199-209.
[41] Naccache, L., Blandin, E., & Dehaene, S. (2002). Unconscious Masked Priming Depends on Temporal Attention. Psychological Science, 13, 416-424.
[42] Nieuwenstein, M. R., Chun, M. M., van der Lubbe, R. H., & Hooge, I. T. (2005). Delayed Attentional Engagement in the Attentional Blink. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 31, 1463-1475.
[43] Norris, D., & Kinoshita, S. (2008). Perception as Evidence Accumulation and Bayesian Inference: Insights from Masked Priming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137, 434-455.
[44] Öhman, A. (2002). Automaticity and the Amygdala: Nonconscious Responses to Emotional Faces. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 62-66.
[45] Olshausen, B. A., & Field, D. J. (1996). Natural Image Statistics and Efficient Coding. Network: Computation in Neural Systems, 7, 333-339.
[46] Palermo, R., & Rhodes, G. (2007). Are You Always on My Mind? A Review of How Face Perception and Attention Interact. Neuropsychologia, 45, 75-92.
[47] Pegna, A. J., Khateb, A., Lazeyras, F., & Seghier, M. L. (2005). Discriminating Emotional Faces without Visual Cortices Involves the Right Amygdala. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 24-25.
[48] Posner, M. I., & Snyder, C. R. R. (1975). Attention and Cognitive Control. In R. L. Solso (Ed.), Information Processing and Cognition (pp. 55-85). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
[49] Purushothaman, G., Patel, S. S., Bedell, H. E., & Ogmen, H. (1998). Moving Ahead through Differential Visual Latency. Nature, 396, 424-424.
[50] Reingold, E. M., & Merikle, P. (1988). Using Direct and Indirect Measures to Study Perception without Awareness. Perception & Psychophysics, 44, 563-575.
[51] Schöberl, T., Fuchs, I., Theeuwes, J., & Ansorge, U. (2015). Stimulus-Driven Attentional Capture by Subliminal Onset Cues. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 77, 737-748.
[52] Schyns, P. G. (1998). Diagnostic Recognition: Task Constraints, Object Information and Their Interactions. Cognition, 67, 147-179.
[53] Schyns, P. G., & Oliva, A. (1999). Dr. Angry and Mr. Smile: When Categorization Flexibly Modifies the Perception of Faces in Rapid Visual Presentations. Cognition, 69, 243-265.
[54] Tailby, C., Cheong, S. K., Pietersen, A. N., Solomon, S. G., & Martin, P. R. (2012). Colour and Pattern Selectivity of Receptive Fields in Superior Colliculus of Marmoset Monkeys. The Journal of Physiology, 590, 4061-4077.
[55] Tapia, E., & Breitmeyer, B. G. (2011). Visual Consciousness Revisited Magnocellular and Parvocellular Contributions to Conscious and Nonconscious Vision. Psychological Science, 22, 934-942.
[56] Tamietto, M., & de Gelder, B. (2010). Neural Basis of the Non-Conscious Perception of Emotional Signal. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 697-709.
[57] Vath, N., & Schmidt, T. (2007). Tracing Sequential Waves of Rapid Visuomotor Activation in Lateralized Readiness Potentials. Neuroscience, 145, 197-208.
[58] Vorberg, D., Mattler, U., Heinecke, A., Schmidt, T., & Schwarzbach, J. (2003). Different Time Courses for Visual Perception and Action Priming. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 100, 6275-6280.
[59] Vuilleumier, P., Armony, J. L., Driver, J., & Dolan, R. J. (2003). Distinct Spatial Frequency Sensitivities for Processing Faces and Emotional Expressions. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 624-631.
[60] Weiskrantz, L. (1986). Blindsight: A Case Study and Implication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[61] Weiskrantz, L., Warrington, E. K., Sanders, M. D., & Marshall, J. (1974). Visual Capacity in the Hemianopic Field Following a Restricted Occipital Ablation. Brain, 97, 709-728.

Copyright © 2020 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.