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Afterimages: a tool for defining the neural correlate of visual consciousness


Kirschfeld,  K
Former Department Comparative Neurobiology, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Max Planck Society;

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Kirschfeld, K. (1999). Afterimages: a tool for defining the neural correlate of visual consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 8(4), 462-483. doi:10.1006/ccog.1999.0388.

Our visual system not only mediates information about the visual environment but is capable of generating pictures of nonexistent worlds: afterimages, illusions, phosphenes, etc. We are “aware” of these pictures just as we are aware of the images of natural, physical objects. This raises the question: is the neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) of such images the same as that of images of physical objects? Images of natural objects have some properties in common with afterimages (e.g., stability of verticality) but there are also obvious differences (e.g., images maintain size constancy, whereas afterimages follow Emmert‘s Law: when seen while screens at different distances are observed, an afterimage looks larger, the greater the distance of the screen). The differences can be explained by differences in the retinal extent of images and afterimages, which favors the view that both have the same NCC. It seems reasonable to assume that before neural activity can produce awareness, all the computations necessary for a veridical representation of, e.g., an object, must be completed within the neural substrate and that information characteristic of a particular object must be available within the NCC. Given these assumptions, it can be shown that no retinotopic (in a strict sense) cortical areas can serve as the NCC, although some type of topographic representation is necessary. It seems also to be unlikely that neurons classified as cardinal cells alone can serve as NCC.