My AHRC Fellowship supported a collaboration with Chris Frith exploring what difference consciousness makes to the way representations are processed. I have already blogged about our theoretical work, published in Neuroscience of Consciousness. We were lucky to be able to employ the adept experimentalist Eoin Travers straight out of his PhD at Queen’s Belfast to carry experimental work on this question.
The results of these experiments have just been accepted in the learning journal, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. We used a very pared-down behavioural setting that we could study in the lab: the way people respond to seeing arrows. The task was to respond to a cross on the left or the right of the screen. We followed many other studies and showed that an arrow presented in the middle of the screen could help with this task. People are quicker when the arrow is pointing the direction where they will subsequently have to respond. They are also slower when the arrow is pointing the wrong way. And these effects persist even when the arrow is presented subliminally.
What we were most interested in was whether subjects could learn about whether the arrow was helpful or unhelpful. In a few dozen trials can I learn that the arrow mostly points the right way, and so avoid being mislead by it? The answer is that this is relatively straightforward if the arrow is consciously experienced, but statistical analyses suggest that people are not doing any learning when the arrow is subliminal. The automatic effect of the unconscious arrow remains in place and the un-learning of that automatic that is possible when you can see the arrow seems not to be an option when the arrow is unconscious.
That result adds to the picture of the positive functions of consciousness and what a representation’s being part of our conscious mental life does for our cognition. A pre-print of the paper is available here.
Travers, E., Frith, C. D. and Shea, N. (forthcoming) ‘Learning Rapidly about the Relevance of Visual Cues Requires Conscious Awareness’, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.