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Working paper

Moment-to-moment fluctuations in neuronal excitability bias subjective perception rather than decision-making

Iemi L., Busch N. A.
Perceiving an external stimulus not only depends on the physical features of the stimulus, but also fundamentally on the current state of neuronal excitability, indexed by the power of ongoing alpha oscillations. Recent studies suggest that heightened excitability does not improve perceptual acuity, but biases observers to report the presence of a stimulus regardless of its physical presence. It is unknown whether this bias is due to changes in observers' subjective perceptual experience (perceptual bias) or their perception-independent decision-making strategy (decision bias). We tested these alternative interpretations in an EEG experiment in which human participants performed two-interval forced choice (2IFC) detection and discrimination. According to signal detection theory, perceptual bias only affects 2IFC detection, but not discrimination, while interval decision bias should be task-independent. We found that detection was optimal in trials in which excitability before the stimulus-present interval exceeded that before the stimulus-absent interval, consistent with an effect of excitability on perceptual bias. By contrast, discrimination accuracy was unaffected by excitability fluctuations between intervals, ruling out an effect on interval decision bias. We conclude that the current state of neuronal excitability biases the perceptual experience itself, rather than the decision process.