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Is consciousness a gradual phenomenon? Evidence for an all-or-none bifurcation during the attentional blink.

Several theories of the neural correlates of consciousness assume that there is a continuum of perception, associated with a gradual change in the intensity of brain activation. But some models, considering reverberation of neural activity as necessary for conscious perception, predict a sharp nonlinear transition between unconscious and conscious processing. We asked participants to evaluate the visibility of target words on a continuous scale during the attentional blink, which is known to impede explicit reports. Participants used this continuous scale in an all-or-none fashion: Targets presented during the blink were either identified as well as targets presented outside the blink period or not detected at all. We suggest that a stochastic nonlinear bifurcation in neural activity underlies the all-or-none perception observed during the attentional blink.