The determinants of consciousness of human faces

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From what we see to what we hear and from how we feel to what we think, our conscious experiences play an important role in shaping our lives. Because we become aware of only a small subset of our ongoing cognitive and perceptual processes1,2,3,4, explicating the determinants of conscious experiences is a crucial step towards understanding human behaviour. Here we develop a computational data-driven approach for studying the determinants of consciousness and we use it to investigate what is arguably the most important social stimulus: the human face5,6,7. In six experiments with 174 participants, we used this method to uncover a reliable dimension that determines the speed with which different faces reach conscious awareness. This dimension correlates strongly with the perceived power/dominance of a face. We show that the dimension cannot be explained by low-level visual factors and does not describe conscious processing, thereby suggesting that it captures the process of prioritization for consciousness. By visualizing the dimension, we are able to produce a vivid depiction of what unconscious processes prioritize for conscious processing. We propose this method as a means to study the contents and neural correlates of conscious experiences across various domains.

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Change history

  • Correction 19 January 2018

    In the version of this Letter originally published, the image of the face in Fig. 1c was mistakenly visible but should have been blended into the pattern. This has now been corrected.


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This research was supported by the United States–Israel Binational Science Foundation (grant no. 2013417 to R.R.H. and A.T.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, the decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Department of Cognitive Sciences, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel

    • Yaniv Abir
  2. Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

    • Asael Y. Sklar
  3. Department of Psychology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands

    • Ron Dotsch
  4. Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • Alexander Todorov
  5. Department of Psychology and The Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel

    • Ran R. Hassin


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Y.A., A.Y.S. R.D. A.T. and R.R.H. developed the main ideas of this research programme. Y.A. and A.Y.S. programmed the experiments. Y.A. ran the experiments and analysed data. R.D. contributed analysis methods and scripts. Y.A. and R.R.H. wrote the manuscript, and R.D., A.Y.S. and T.D. provided extensive feedback on the writing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yaniv Abir or Ran R. Hassin.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary results, Supplementary methods, Supplementary references, Supplementary Figures 1–2

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary


  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Video