Conscious and unconscious processes in cognitive control: a theoretical perspective and a novel empirical approach

Horga, Guillermo; Maia, Tiago Vaz

Controlled processing is often referred to as “voluntary” or “willful” and therefore assumed to depend entirely on conscious processes. Recent studies using subliminal-priming paradigms, however, have started to question this assumption. Specifically, these studies have shown that subliminally presented stimuli can induce adjustments in control. Such findings are not immediately reconcilable with the view that conscious and unconscious processes are separate, with each having its own neural substrates and modus operandi. We propose a different theoretical perspective that suggests that conscious and unconscious processes might be implemented by the same neural substrates and largely perform the same neural computations, with the distinction between the two arising mostly from the quality of representations (although not all brain regions may be capable of supporting conscious representations). Thus, stronger and more durable neuronal firing would give rise to conscious processes; weaker or less durable neuronal firing would remain below the threshold of consciousness but still be causally efficacious in affecting behavior. We show that this perspective naturally explains the findings that subliminally presented primes induce adjustments in cognitive control. We also highlight an important gap in this literature: whereas subliminal-priming paradigms demonstrate that an unconsciously presented prime is sufficient to induce adjustments in cognitive control, they are uninformative about what occurs under standard task conditions. In standard tasks, the stimuli themselves are consciously perceived; however, the extent to which the processes that lead to adjustments in control are conscious or unconscious remains unexplored. We propose a new paradigm suitable to investigate these issues and to test important predictions of our hypothesis that conscious and unconscious processes both engage the same control machinery, differing mostly in the quality of the representations.


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Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

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July 31, 2013