Tag Archives: unconscious

Unconscious effects

There is an interesting item in ScienceDaily (here) on the effect of perceptions that we are not conscious of. We can perceive an object, understand its meaning, and have that meaning affect our behavior, without any conscious awareness of the object. The paper’s lead author, Cacciamani, says, “Every day our visual systems are bombarded with more information than we can consciously be aware of. We’re showing that your brain might still be accessing information without your conscious awareness, and that could influence your behavior.

groundThe researchers use the way we perceive the figure and ground of a silhouette. We perceive the figure before we perceive the ground and we perceive the semantic meaning of the figure before the ground – in many cases we do not seem to be concerned at all about the meaning of the ground. They showed a silhouette for 50 milliseconds before a test, and did not tell the subjects to do anything with the image. The subjects were not aware that the ground suggested a particular meaning. As in the image, where the figure is meaningless and the ground suggests leaves, the leaves do not reach awareness in the short exposure.

The test was that subjects were shown an object and had to indicate whether it was natural or man-made. Before each test object, the short exposure to the silhouette was shown. “We found that participants performed better on the natural/artificial word task when that word followed a silhouette whose ground contained an object of the same rather than a different category.”

So although the subjects had no consciousness of meaningful objects in the ground, they were affected by the meanings. The perceptions of the ground-objects were complete and they were assigned meanings without conscious awareness. The meanings affected the choice of actions without conscious awareness. To me this indicates that perception, meaning, and decision are not necessarily always exclusively bound to consciousness.

Here is the citation and abstract:

Laura Cacciamani, Andrew J. Mojica, Joseph L. Sanguinetti, Mary A. Peterson. Semantic access occurs outside of awareness for the ground side of a figure. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 2014.

Traditional theories of vision assume that figures and grounds are assigned early in processing, with semantics being accessed later and only by figures, not by grounds. We tested this assumption by showing observers novel silhouettes with borders that suggested familiar objects on their ground side. The ground appeared shapeless near the figure’s borders; the familiar objects suggested there were not consciously perceived. Participants’ task was to categorize words shown immediately after the silhouettes as naming natural versus artificial objects. The words named objects from the same or from a different superordinate category as the familiar objects suggested in the silhouette ground. In Experiment 1, participants categorized words faster when they followed silhouettes suggesting upright familiar objects from the same rather than a different category on their ground sides, whereas no category differences were observed for inverted silhouettes. This is the first study to show unequivocally that, contrary to traditional assumptions, semantics are accessed for objects that might be perceived on the side of a border that will ultimately be perceived as a shapeless ground. Moreover, although the competition for figural status results in suppression of the shape of the losing contender, its semantics are not suppressed. In Experiment 2, we used longer silhouette-to-word stimulus onset asynchronies to test whether semantics would be suppressed later in time, as might occur if semantics were accessed later than shape memories. No evidence of semantic suppression was observed; indeed, semantic activation of the objects suggested on the ground side of a border appeared to be short-lived. Implications for feedforward versus dynamical interactive theories of object perception are discussed.

Discovering rules unconsciously

Dijksterhuis and Nordgren put forward a theory of unconscious thought. They propose that there are two types of thought process: conscious and unconscious. “CT (conscious thought) refers to object-relevant or task-relevant cognitive or affective thought processes that occur while the object or task is the focus of one’s conscious attention, whereas UT (unconscious thought) refers to object-relevant or task-relevant cognitive or affective thought processes that occur while conscious attention is directed elsewhere.’’

Like Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thought there is no implication here that there is purely conscious thought with no unconscious components but only that conscious awareness is part of the process. I prefer the System name as it avoids the possible interpretation that there might be purely conscious thought. System 1 is like UT and is characterized as: autonomous, fast, effortless, hidden/unconscious, simultaneous/parallel/complex. System 2 is like CT: deliberate, slow, effortful, conscious, serial/logical/simple. The most telling difference is whether working memory is used; working memory restricts the number of items that can be manipulated in thought to about 7 or less at a time and introduces the conscious awareness of the working memory. It is often viewed as a difference between calculation and estimation, or between explicit and implicit knowledge.

The way these two processes are compared is to set out a problem and then compare the results after one of three activities: the subjects can consciously think about the problem for a certain length of time; the subjects can spend the same amount of time doing something that completely engages their consciousness; or they can be giving no time at all and asked for the answer immediately after the problem is presented. It has been found that with complex problems with many ingredients, that System 1/UT gives more quality results then System 2/CT and both are better than immediate answers.

A recent paper by Li, Zhu and Yang looks at another comparison of the two ways of thinking. (citation below)


According to unconscious thought theory (UTT), unconscious thought is more adept at complex decision-making than is conscious thought. Related research has mainly focused on the complexity of decision-making tasks as determined by the amount of information provided. However, the complexity of the rules generating this information also influences decision making. Therefore, we examined whether unconscious thought facilitates the detection of rules during a complex decision-making task. Participants were presented with two types of letter strings. One type matched a grammatical rule, while the other did not. Participants were then divided into three groups according to whether they made decisions using conscious thought, unconscious thought, or immediate decision. The results demonstrated that the unconscious thought group was more accurate in identifying letter strings that conformed to the grammatical rule than were the conscious thought and immediate decision groups. Moreover, performance of the conscious thought and immediate decision groups was similar. We conclude that unconscious thought facilitates the detection of complex rules, which is consistent with UTT.

It is a characteristic of System 2/CT that it is used to rigorously follow rules to calculate a result. However there is a difference between following a rule and discovering one. This rule discovery activity may be the same as implicit learning. “Mealor and Dienes (2012) combined UT and implicit learning research paradigms to investigate the impact of UT on artificial grammar learning. A classic implicit learning paradigm consists of two stages: training and testing. ” The UT group had better results but they categorized the process as random selection. The current paper shows that the UT group can find the grammatical rules illustrated in the training and then identify grammatical as opposed to ungrammatical strings. System 1/UT is better at uncovering rules and of identifying examples that break the rules. This does not seem to be a rigorous following of rules as in System 2 but more a statistical tendency or a stereotypical categorization of the nature of implicit learning.

It is important to be clear that System 2 or CT is thought that has a conscious component and it does not imply that the thought is conducted ‘in’ consciousness. We are aware of the steps in a train of thought, but not aware of the process, they are hidden.


Li, J., Zhu, Y., & Yang, Y. (2014). The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Rule Detection PLoS ONE, 9 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0106557

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Forget suppressed memories

A recent paper (see citation) has put a hole in another remnant of Freud’s influence, that suppressed memories are still active. Freud noticed that we can suppress unwelcome memories. He theorized that the suppressed memories continued to exist in the unconscious mind and could unconsciously affect behaviour. Uncovering these memories and their influence was a large part of psychoanalysis. Understanding whether this theory is valid is important for evaluating recovered memories of abuse and for dealing with post-traunatic stress disorder.



The question Gagnepain, Henson and Anderson set out to answer was whether successfully suppressed conscious memories were also suppressed unconsciously or whether they were still unconsciously active. They had subjects learn an association between a word and a picture for a number of pairs. After the pairs were well learned the word would bring the picture to mind. Some of the pairs were then deliberately suppressed through the subject attempting to not bring the picture to mind when the word was mentioned. This produced two sets of pictures in the subject’s mind: one set would come easily to mind (unsuppressed) and the other set was very difficult to bring to mind (consciously suppressed). But what would be the unconscious influence of the consciously suppressed pictures? The subjects were shown the pictures after they had been doctored to make them difficult to recognize. The ones that had been suppressed were not easier but harder to recognize then the unsuppressed ones. So the willful suppression weakened the memory consciously and also weakened the unconscious influence. This sequence was followed with scans which indicated that it was not just the retrieval of memories that was changed by the suppression but also the memories themselves. And further it was the visual-sensory aspect of the memories that was disrupted.



There are of course some flags to put up: the experiments were done on adults and might not apply to children; and, there was no high psychological stress involved that might change the storage or retrieval of highly emotional memories. However the results do fit with a number of other findings about memory, so that it is now unwise to take the Freudian view of suppression as reliable.



Here is the abstract:


After a trauma, people often suppress intrusive visual memories. We used functional MRI to understand how healthy participants suppress the visual content of memories to overcome intrusions, and whether suppressed content continues to exert unconscious influences. Effective connectivity, representational similarity, and computational analyses revealed a frontally mediated mechanism that suppresses intrusive visual memories by reducing activity in the visual cortex. This reduction disrupted neural and behavioral expressions of implicit memory during a later perception test. Thus, our findings indicate that motivated forgetting mechanisms, known to disrupt conscious retention, also reduce unconscious expressions of memory, pointing to a neurobiological model of this process.


Suppressing retrieval of unwanted memories reduces their later conscious recall. It is widely believed, however, that suppressed memories can continue to exert strong unconscious effects that may compromise mental health. Here we show that excluding memories from awareness not only modulates medial temporal lobe regions involved in explicit retention, but also neocortical areas underlying unconscious expressions of memory. Using repetition priming in visual perception as a model task, we found that excluding memories of visual objects from consciousness reduced their later indirect influence on perception, literally making the content of suppressed memories harder for participants to see. Critically, effective connectivity and pattern similarity analysis revealed that suppression mechanisms mediated by the right middle frontal gyrus reduced activity in neocortical areas involved in perceiving objects and targeted the neural populations most activated by reminders. The degree of inhibitory modulation of the visual cortex while people were suppressing visual memories predicted, in a later perception test, the disruption in the neural markers of sensory memory. These findings suggest a neurobiological model of how motivated forgetting affects the unconscious expression of memory that may be generalized to other types of memory content. More generally, they suggest that the century-old assumption that suppression leaves unconscious memories intact should be reconsidered.”


Gagnepain, P., Henson, R., & Anderson, M. (2014). Suppressing unwanted memories reduces their unconscious influence via targeted cortical inhibition Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1311468111

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Another viewpoint

In my last post I gave my own ideas about consciousness and unconsciousness. I have to say that my outlook would be considered a bit extreme by some very respected neuroscientists, and so here I give a more orthodox view.


Bargh and Morsella (citation below) (The Unconscious Mind) have examined the various versions of unconsciousness. Here is the abstract:


The unconscious mind is still viewed by many psychological scientists as the shadow of a “real” conscious mind, though there now exists substantial evidence that the unconscious is not identifiably less flexible, complex, controlling, deliberative, or action-oriented than is its counterpart. This “conscious-centric” bias is due in part to the operational definition within cognitive psychology that equates unconscious with subliminal. We review the evidence challenging this restricted view of the unconscious emerging from contemporary social cognition research, which has traditionally defined the unconscious in terms of its unintentional nature; this research has demonstrated the existence of several independent unconscious behavioral guidance systems: perceptual, evaluative, and motivational. From this perspective, it is concluded that in both phylogeny and ontogeny, actions of an unconscious mind precede the arrival of a conscious mind—that action precedes reflection.”


The paper is realistic in its view of the limits of consciousness but still models the brain as having two minds, a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. In contrast, my view is that consciousness and unconsciousness are two parts of a single mind with consciousness not having much of a role outside of awareness.


Bargh and Morsella, contrast the views of cognitive psychology and social psychology. Cognitive psychology concerned itself with unconscious information processing, subliminal information. “Because subliminal-strength stimuli are relatively weak and of low intensity by definition, the mental processes they drive are necessarily minimal and unsophisticated, and so these studies have led to the conclusion that the powers of the unconscious mind are limited and that the unconscious is rather “dumb”.”Social psychology looked at mental processes that were hidden from awareness. “This research, in contrast with the cognitive psychology tradition, has led to the view that the unconscious mind is a pervasive, powerful influence over such higher mental processes.” There is also the popular view of the unconscious, the Freudian model. The details of Freud’s model have not survived later science but the authors feel that the general idea survives. “… in broad-brush terms the cognitive and social psychological evidence does support Freud as to the existence of unconscious mentation and its potential to impact judgments and behavior.” Pre-Freudian ideas of unconsciousness are rare and the conscious mind was viewed naively as ‘the mind’ or most of it.


The authors say that there is a consensus on conscious thought but not on unconscious thought. “…the qualities of conscious thought processes: they are intentional, controllable, serial in nature (consumptive of limited processing resources), and accessible to awareness (i.e., verbally reportable).” They point out that two of the unconscious processes that were studied in some detail: the pre-conscious perception processes that supply conscious awareness; and, the acquisition of skills through practice so that they become unconscious. Also in the mix, is the idea derived from hypnosis of ‘unconscious’ meaning a person being unaware of the causes for their behavior.


And this equation of unconscious with unintentional is how unconscious phenomena have been conceptualized and studied within social psychology for the past quarter century or so. Nisbett and Wilson’s seminal article posed the question, “To what extent are people aware of and able to report on the true causes of their behavior?” The answer was “not very well”, which was surprising and controversial at the time given the overall assumption of many that judgments and behavior (the higher mental processes) were typically consciously intended and thus available to conscious awareness. If these processes weren’t accessible to awareness, then perhaps they weren’t consciously intended, and if they weren’t consciously intended, then how in fact were they accomplished? This latter question motivated the social psychology research into priming and automaticity effects, which investigated the ways in which the higher mental processes such as judgment and social behavior could be triggered and then operate in the absence of conscious intent and guidance. Consequently, this research operationally defined unconscious influences in terms of a lack of awareness of the influences or effects of a triggering stimulus and not of the triggering stimulus itself. And what a difference this change in operational definition makes! If one shifts the operational definition of the unconscious from the processing of stimuli of which one is not aware to the influences or effects of stimulus processing of which one is not aware, suddenly the true power and scope of the unconscious in daily life become apparent. Defining the unconscious in terms of the former leads directly to the conclusion that it is dumb as dirt, whereas defining it in terms of the latter affords the opinion that it is highly intelligent and adaptive….social cognition research on priming and automaticity effects have shown the existence of sophisticated, flexible, and adaptive unconscious behavior guidance systems. These would seem to be of high functional value, especially as default behavioral tendencies when the conscious mind, as is its wont, travels away from the present environment into the past or the future. It is nice to know that the unconscious is minding the store when the owner is absent.”


So although this paper shows that the consciousness-bias is no longer strongly in vogue, it also shows that my viewpoint, that consciousness is awareness and not processes of cognition (or perception, action, emotion, volition etc.), is not generally accepted. I am not alone though – there is Thomas Metzinger.


John A. Bargh, & Ezequiel Morsella (2008). The Unconscious Mind Perspect Pyschol Sci., 3 (1), 73-79

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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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