Does control of cognition have to be conscious?

What are the functions of consciousness in cognition? In fact, are there any? Over many experiments, it has been shown that unconscious information processing is common, powerful, sophisticated and not completely unlike ‘conscious processing’. Unconscious processing can reach higher semantic levels. But many theories, some very widely accepted such as the Global Neuronal Workspace, contain the idea of cognitive control and postulate that it is always associated with consciousness. These theories assume that unconscious stimuli cannot trigger top-down cognitive control, planning of strategies, or correction of possible errors. Other theories do not assume this and accept the possibility of unconscious control of cognition.


The authors, Desender and others, (see citation) of a recent paper set out to test unconscious control in a particular setting, conflict adaptation.


Cognitive control kicks in when routine activation of behavior is no longer sufficient for optimal performance. When people encounter interference they adjust their behavior to overcome it. This interference can take various forms. For example, in a situation where relevant and irrelevant information can activate differential responses, this potential response conflict requires remedial action. In the current study we will focus on this particular expression of cognitive control, known as conflict adaptation. To study this affect we used a priming paradigm in which subjects are instructed to categorize a target (i.e. the relevant information) as fast as possible, while ignoring a preceding prime (i.e. the irrelevant information). When prime and target trigger the same response (i.e. congruent trial) responses are typically fast and error rates low. However, when prime and target trigger a different response (i.e. incongruent trial), both sources are highly conflicting, which typically leads to slower response times and elevated error rates. The interesting observation is that subjects continuously adapt to this conflicting information. When they experience a conflict on the previous trial, they will react to this by reducing the detrimental influence of the irrelevant information, leading to reduced priming effects (i.e. faster responses to congruent compared to incongruent trials) on the current trial. This is achieved by inhibiting irrelevant information and/or focusing on relevant information. This effect, also known as the Gratton effect, is typically calculated by computing the difference between congruency effects following congruent and following incongruent trials. It is a hightly robust finding, independent of the particular paradigm being used.”


The researchers used this method (in ways avoiding several weaknesses of some previous similar experiments) with the primer being either visible and therefore conscious, or masked to be subliminal, invisible and therefore unconscious. The cognitive control would either be triggered by unconscious information or not. They found it was triggered; there was unconscious conflict adaption. “Consequently, our results add to the growing literature showing that many aspects of cognitive control do not seem to have an exclusive link with consciousness.”


The study also showed, using neutral primes, that the adaptation effect was caused by conflict in incongruent trials and not lack of conflict in the congruent trials in both the conscious and the unconscious trials. The origin of the adaptation was either through facilitation (faster, more accurate congruent trials) or interference (slower, less accurate incongruent trials). Again comparing with neutral primes, they found a clear pattern of interference as the source of the adaptation in conscious trials but unconscious trials were less clear and may show facilitation. The authors feel this last observation requires more study.


We conclude that conflict adaptation is possible with the conflicting information remains unconscious, confirming the findings of Gaal et al. This, conflict adaptation, as a prevailing expression of cognitive control, does not seem to be a function exclusively reserved for consciousness. This observation contributes to the search for the limits and possibilities of unconscious processing and can be helpful to further unravel the mystery of the function of consciousness.


This is another question mark for the idea of exclusive conscious control of anything. There seems to be growing evidence of conscious control not being needed for perception, action, volition, emotion, or cognition. When do we start thinking of consciousness as awareness not control? When do we start thinking of ourselves as whole beings and not disembodied consciousnesses? When do we stop identifying our very ‘selves’ with a flickering image?

Desender K, Van Lierde E, & Van den Bussche E (2013). Comparing conscious and unconscious conflict adaptation. PloS one, 8 (2) PMID: 23405242

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