Neuroscience research leads to a groundbreaking theoretical revision of consciousness

Neuroscience research leads to a groundbreaking theoretical revision of consciousness

How and to what extent unconscious processing of information affects our behavior has long been one of the most controversial questions in psychology. In the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that our behaviors are driven by thoughts, feelings, and memories hidden deep within the unconscious mind—an idea that became wildly popular, but was eventually dismissed as unscientific.

Modern neuroscience tells us that we are not fully aware of most brain activity, but that this unconscious processing does influence behavior; However, some influences, such as the unconscious semantic “boot”, have been questioned, leading some to conclude that the extent of unconscious processing is limited.

A recent brain-scanning study showed that subconsciously processed visual information is distributed over a broader network of brain regions involved in higher cognitive tasks. The findings contribute to the debate about how unconscious information processing affects the brain and behavior, and led the study’s authors to review one of the leading theories of consciousness.

subconscious processing

Ning Mei and colleagues at the Basque Center for Perception, Brain, and Language in Spain recruited 7 participants and showed them visual images while scanning their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Half of the pictures were of living things, and the other half of non-living things. All of them can be classified into ten categories, such as animals or boats. Participants viewed a total of 1,728 images, presented in groups of 32, over six days, each with a one-hour scanning session.

After determining the pattern of brain activity associated with each image, the researchers then presented the same images for shorter periods of time in subsequent experiments. In some cases, the images were presented for a duration of 47 milliseconds (milliseconds, milliseconds), giving participants a perceptual experience that was clear to them. In others, they were presented for 38 milliseconds, enough time for them to look at the images. In others, they were presented for 25 milliseconds, in which case they did not enter into the participants’ conscious perception.

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Even when the images were presented for the shortest time periods, and participants failed to recognize their contents, their brain activity patterns contained enough information for the researchers to categorize the images as moving objects versus inanimate objects. In other words, the unconscious processing contained meaningful information about the images, which became accessible to the higher-level processing stages.

The authors say their findings, which were published in the journal The nature of human behaviorthey suggest that mental representations of conscious and unconscious information overlap in some regions of the visual pathway, and they also suggest that global workspace theories of consciousness need revision.

Global Workspace Theory of Consciousness

Global workspace theories state that conscious awareness arises when a central, extensive network hub of brain structures in the frontal and parietal lobes “broadcasts” information to make it available to other neural systems involved in cognitive processes such as attention, language, and working memory. Thus, various types of information are processed in the relevant local domains, and they enter conscious perception only if they are received first, and then shared by the central axis.

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