Research Article: Consciousness and cognitive control

Date Published: February 3, 2012

Publisher: University of Finance and Management in Warsaw

Author(s): Wilfried Kunde, Heiko Reuss, Andrea Kiesel.


The implementation or change of information processing routines, known as
cognitive control, is traditionally believed to be closely linked to
consciousness. It seems that we exert control over our behavior if we know the
reasons for, and consequences of, doing so. Recent research suggests, however,
that several behavioral phenomena that have been construed as instances of
cognitive control can be prompted by events of which actors are not aware. Here
we give a brief review of this research, discuss possible reasons for
inconsistencies in the empirical evidence, and suggest some lines of future
research. Specifically, we suggest to differentiate cognitive control evoked
either because of explicit or because of implicit control cues. While the former
type of control seems to work outside of awareness, the latter type of control
seems to be restricted to consciously registered events that call for

Partial Text

It has been known for a long time that unconscious stimuli can affect our behavior.
Classical demonstrations of this phenomenon relate to neurological cases of
blindsight, neglect, or extinction, where patients, despite being unaware of parts
of their visual field, locate and identify stimuli above chance level (e.g., Fuentes & Humphreys, 1996; Pöppel, Held, & Frost, 1973; Weiskrantz, 1986, 2002; Young & de Haan,
1993). In healthy participants similar phenomena have been demonstrated
by means of subliminal priming. In subliminal priming experiments, participants
respond to a target that is preceded by another, so-called prime
stimulus. Although the prime is heavily masked, and thus phenomenally
“unaware”, it leaves a trace in behavior: Responses are usually faster
and more accurate when prime and target are mapped to the same motor response (e.g.,
Dehaene et al., 1998; Neumann & Klotz, 1994; Vorberg, Mattler, Heinecke, Schmidt, &
Schwarzbach, 2003) or belong to the same semantic category (e.g., Dell’Aqua & Grainger, 1999; Kiefer, 2002; Kiefer & Brendel, 2006; Martens,
Ansorge, & Kiefer, 2011; Schütz,
Schendzielarz, Zwitserlood, & Vorberg, 2007), which implies that the
prime is processed to some degree.

The above review shows that the processing of subliminal stimuli is widely
acknowledged. In fact, sometimes the capacity for unconscious processing is assumed
to be even larger than the capacity for conscious processing (e.g., Custers & Aarts, 2010; Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren, & van Baaren,
2006). One may therefore wonder whether there is anything left at all
that “the unconscious” cannot do. Stated conversely, are there
processes that can only operate on events we are aware of? Answering this question
is important because knowing which pro-cesses require awareness and which do not
shed light on the functional role of awareness in human information processing.
Indeed, some researchers claim that cognitive control processes obligatorily require
awareness (e.g., Dehaene, & Naccache,
2001; Jack & Shallice, 2001;
for an overview, see Hommel, 2007). The term
cognitive control is widely used in modern psychology and
describes phenomena that have been considered in chapters on “will” in
historical textbooks of psychology (e.g., Ach,
1905). Although not very well defined, it seems fair to say that
cognitive control denotes those processes that configure the
cognitive system to process stimuli in a specific manner, and re-configure the
cognitive system when certain events tell the observer/actor to treat stimuli in a
different way.

To our knowledge, there are three instances of cognitive control that have been
tested to be subliminally induced by explicit cues. These are task preparation,
response inhibition, and orienting of attention.

What can we learn from this review of studies on the consciousness-control link?