Category Archives: cognition

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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Metaphors are basic

Metaphors are basic

A few weeks ago, a friend asked what I thought about metaphors. Actually I think they are extremely important to cognition. Many years ago I was looking at a list of rhetorical devices/figures of speech. Each had its Latin name under which it was taught as part of rhetoric in ancient and medieval times. What stood out was how different metaphor, simile, allegory, analogue (and the figurative by any other name) were from the other devices and how similar they were to each other. It was as if these were ways of thinking as well as forms of speaking.

This prompted me to look at investigators such as Lakeoff and Johnson. Many of the ideas and theories about metaphor are very well known and I do not want to repeat them here. I want to deal with some less well known ideas.

Embodied cognition bridges the gap between babies being born with an empty mind, a ‘blank slate’, and having to figure everything out for themselves; and the other extreme in which babies are born with all the cognitive concepts they need to understand the world. Neither of these extremes are credible. But being born with some very useful starting points and tools, but quite a small group of them, can allow the child to get to a general understanding relatively quickly. We can think of metaphor in this sense. The child has embodied cognition that uses metaphor to get from a physical grounding point to complex and abstract notions.

Take the structure that can be built from the child’s idea of motion that is grounded in the child’s own ability to engage in intentional movement. We could draw a little map of this: there is ‘here’ where I am now, there is ‘start’ where I was when this movement started, ‘target’ where I want to get to, ‘path’, ‘goal’, ‘obstacle’, ‘finish’ and so on. As the child matures other grounded concepts get added. Eventually the child has the concept of a journey which is more complex but still heavily grounded in the child’s physical experience. But journey can become another map including many more ingredients in its structure. Lakeoff did a lot of work on this particular metaphoric structure and I will not repeat those structures (like career, life, transport, exploration) here. As adults we end up (metaphorically) with nested piles of maps, each giving a structure: concepts and relationship between the concepts of a group things that can be related by metaphor.

If I want to explain a computer memory, I say that each bit of data is stored in memory in a particular address. What does this do? The word address brings up a map set, let’s call it the postal system map set. Here everything has an address and there is a standard way to identify an address. Things (letters) can be delivered to an address by a system (postal system) using various forms of transport etc. Once we understand the postal system, we can understand many other systems with similar structures by relabeling the concepts and making small modifications to the relationships, a little tweaking and a new map goes on the pile. In a sense what the words in a language do is to point out to the listener appropriate metaphorical maps to aid in understanding what is being said. It is not just language, we can get these prods and nudges from many things in our environment and from our own thoughts. There are visual, auditory, kinesthetic metaphorical ‘maps’ too. One of the problems with experiments in this area is that very small unnoticed clues can affect the results – a sort of human ‘clever Hans’ effect.

There is a sense in which language is just one huge metaphoric machine. There are dead metaphors. If you take a page of a dictionary and examine a word’s different meanings and etymology you can see how many words are obviously derived from metaphors that have lost their figurativeness through long use and become literal. Look at the word ‘go’ as a good example. What does it mean to die as a metaphor and become literal? One, it is processed in a different part of the brain. Two, it has lost some of its poetic and emotional power. But more importantly, its metaphoric base has changed type; it no longer seems to cause recall its metaphorical roots.

It is a very important question for neuroscience and linguistics to answer: how is what I have (metaphorically) described as grounding – mapping – dieing – pointing-to etc. actually happen in the brain. In terms of autism, it is also a medical question. How is this powerful tool of learning, thinking and communicating realized in the flesh?