The affective value of a stimulus substantially influences its potency to gain access to awareness. Here, we sought to elucidate the neural mechanisms underlying such affective salience in a combined behavioral and fMRI experiment. Healthy individuals with varying degrees of spider phobia were presented with pictures of spiders and flowers suppressed from view by continuous flash suppression. Applying multivoxel pattern analysis, we found that the average time that spider stimuli took relative to flowers to gain access to awareness in each participant could be decoded from fMRI signals evoked by suppressed spider versus flower stimuli in occipitotemporal and orbitofrontal cortex. Our results indicate neural signals during unconscious processing of complex visual information in orbitofrontal and ventral visual areas predict access to awareness of this information, suggesting a crucial role for these higher-level cortical regions in mediating affective salience.

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