New research distinguishes roles of conscious and subconscious awareness

What distinguishes information processing with conscious awareness from processing occurring without awareness? And, is there any role for conscious awareness in information processing, or is it just a byproduct, like the steam from the chimney of a train engine, which is significant, but has no functional role?

These questions - which have long puzzled psychologists, philosophers, and neurobiologists - were recently addressed in a study by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers and published by the journal .

The study was headed by Prof. Leon Deouell from the Hebrew University's Edmond and Lily Safra Center for (ELSC) and Department of Psychology and Prof. Dominique Lamy from the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University, and conducted by research student Liad Mudirk of Tel Aviv University with collaboration of research student Assaf Breska from the Hebrew University.

We are not consciously aware of most of the input that hits upon our . Yet subjectively, dominates our mental activity. "One of the dominant theories in cognitive sciences and psychology posits that parts of the information perceived without awareness may be processed to a certain extent," says Prof. Deouell. "Yet to bind the different parts of a complex input into something meaningful and coherent requires conscious awareness.

To test this theory, the research team ran a study in which they presented participants with pictures of natural scenes including some human action, like a picture of jumping to reach a ball.

In other tests, the same scenes were presented -- except that the central object was replaced by another, unlikely object. For example, the basketball was replaced by a watermelon.

The participants viewed the pictures through a mirror stereoscope, a simple device that allowed the research team to present the pictures to only one eye. At the same time, the other eye viewed rapidly flickering patterns of colors which drew the subjects' attention, so that the participants were not aware for many seconds that anything was presented to their other eye. This allowed the researchers to measure how long it takes normal and unusual scenes to "win the competition" against the flickering pattern and break into awareness.

"We found that participants became aware of the unusual scenes earlier than to the usual scenes," commented Deouell. "The conclusion was that even before the participants were aware of the existence of the picture, the semantic relationships between parts of the scene were interpreted."

The study shows that, counter to previous theories, integration is not the prerogative of conscious awareness but is achieved even without awareness. When and why then do we need conscious awareness?

The findings of this research suggest that when the results of the integration between parts of the input are incompatible with expectations or prior knowledge, awareness is required in order to account for the conundrum. Thus, the study expands the realm of unaware processes, yet shows that conscious awareness is not a meaningful luxury - it allows us to deal with novel and unexpected situations.

Related Stories

Awareness biases information processing

Nov 22, 2011

How does awareness influence information processing during decision making in the human brain? A new study led by Floris de Lange of the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University Nijmegen, ...

To see or not to see

Jan 14, 2010

How do the visual images we experience, which have no tangible existence, arise out of physical processes in the brain? New research at the Weizmann Institute of Science provided evidence, for the first time, that an 'ignition' ...

Now you see it, now you know you see it

Nov 30, 2009

There is a tiny period of time between the registration of a visual stimulus by the unconscious mind and our conscious recognition of it ― between the time we see an apple and the time we recognize it as an apple. Our ...

Recommended for you

New drug naming system unveiled at ECNP in Berlin

7 hours ago

What's in a name? Doctors have found that the name of the drug you are prescribed significantly influences how the patient sees the treatment. Now in a significant shift, the world's major psychiatry organisations are proposing ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tausch
not rated yet Dec 01, 2011
The "integration" of "competition" is threshold rigged. Aside from the visual, many tactile inputs are incompatible with expectations or prior knowledge.

[Threshold - my answer to what? - ] distinguishes information processing with conscious awareness from processing occurring without awareness.


What determines threshold?