What distinguishes information processing with conscious awarenessfrom processing occurring without awareness? And, is there any rolefor conscious awareness in information processing, or is it just abyproduct, like the steam from the chimney of a train engine, whichis significant, but has no functional role? These questions - which have long puzzled psychologists,philosophers, and neurobiologists - were recently addressed in astudy by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers and publishedby the journal Psychological Science. The study was headed by Prof. Leon Deouell from the HebrewUniversity's Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC)and Department of Psychology and Prof. Dominique Lamy from theDepartment of Psychology at Tel Aviv University, and conducted byresearch student Liad Mudirk of Tel Aviv University withcollaboration of research student Assaf Breska from the HebrewUniversity. |
We are not consciously aware of most of the input that hits uponour sensory systems. Yet subjectively, conscious awarenessdominates our mental activity. "One of the dominant theories incognitive sciences and psychology posits that parts of theinformation perceived without awareness may be processed to acertain extent," says Prof. Deouell.
"Yet to bind the differentparts of a complex input into something meaningful and coherentrequires conscious awareness. To test this theory, the research team ran a study in which theypresented participants with pictures of natural scenes includingsome human action, like a picture of basketball players jumping toreach a ball. In other tests, the same scenes were presented -- except that thecentral object was replaced by another, unlikely object. Forexample, 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 thepictures to only one eye. At the same time, the other eye viewedrapidly flickering patterns of colors which drew the subjects'attention, so that the participants were not aware for many secondsthat anything was presented to their other eye. This allowed theresearchers to measure how long it takes normal and unusual scenesto "win the competition" against the flickering pattern and breakinto awareness. "We found that participants became aware of the unusual scenesearlier than to the usual scenes," commented Deouell.
"Theconclusion was that even before the participants were aware of theexistence of the picture, the semantic relationships between partsof the scene were interpreted." The study shows that, counter to previous theories, integration isnot the prerogative of conscious awareness but is achieved evenwithout awareness. When and why then do we need consciousawareness? The findings of this research suggest that when the results of theintegration between parts of the input are incompatible withexpectations or prior knowledge, awareness is required in order toaccount for the conundrum. Thus, the study expands the realm ofunaware processes, yet shows that conscious awareness is not ameaningful luxury - it allows us to deal with novel and unexpectedsituations. Additional References Citations.
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