the kind of things that keep me up at night…

May 26, 2011

The Unconscious Has a Mind of Its Own – Association for Psychological Science.

I’ve been doing a bit of writing about how goals play a role in conceptual acquisition. Fun stuff which hopefully I’ll get a chance to share down the road some. The topic has brought me closer and closer to issues related to consciousness (cue the creepy organ). As a result, this recent study caught my eye.

So, let’s start there. I just said that study “caught my eye” – did I (the free-will toting me) willfully direct my attention to this study because of my interests? Or is there some whirring and buzzing processing occurring within me, over which I have no control, and it latched onto this study and brought me (the conscious me) along with it? In case you didn’t know, there is a bit of debate going on among psychologists about what is “consciousness” and what it is for (I’ll blame those pesky social psychologists for stirring up this hornet’s nest). At one end of the spectrum, you have folks who believe, often just an assumption really, that conscious experience reflects exactly the cognitive processing that is on-going, and that we (as in the conscious we) are ultimately in control of that processing. For instance, I will now tell myself to type the word “frog”. Frog. See. I (the free-will me) thought of something and then action followed. At the other end of the spectrum, there are folks that believe that conscious experience is simply that, an experience. Much like you may see a movie, you experience consciousness, but you are just along for the ride. As much as you might want to shout at the actor on the screen to not open the door (especially when the serial killer lurks on the other side), you have no real opportunity or power to actually change the course of the ongoing action. There is a lot out there on this debate (I especially have enjoyed reading some of Daniel Dennett‘s ideas, not that I fully agree with or understand them, mind you). Hopefully, you can see why this keeps me up at night.

The study is interesting because it takes aim at one of the strongholds of consciousness. One of the ideas out there is that the unconscious is important, but that conscious processing is necessary for the really “hard thinking”. Sure, the unconscious processing can cue us to information or shape how we interpret some incoming information, but when it comes to the difficult processing, like integrating meaning across objects and scenes, the conscious processing is ready to take over. The study by researchers at Tel Aviv University shows that the story may be a bit different. Participants viewed scenes in a way that was designed to curtail conscious perception of the images. However, they reacted faster to incongruous scenes (someone placing a chessboard into an oven) than congruous ones (placing food into an oven), indicating that the unconscious processing was sufficient to integrate the scene (the objects and background in the images) in terms of its meaning. This interpretation fits with the ideas proposed by several researchers (check out some work by John Bargh and Ap Dijksterhuis for some stuff that could keep you up at night) about the importance of unconscious processing. It still leaves some important cognitive real estate for conscious processing (dealing with the incongruous information), but it does shift the debate, and not in the favor of those who have held out that conscious processing is the pinnacle of human cognition.

Reading the article though, a couple of issues came to mind. The first is related to “doing science” (research methods students should pay attention these concerns). The interpretation the authors provide relies on the methodology (continuous flash suppression) achieving the proposed disruption of conscious processing. I am not a vision scientist, so I don’t have the expertise to make any meaningful critique of the methodology, and I recognize that there is a growing literature (although currently limited) that addresses the use of this methodology. Still, before I fully accept these findings, I need to do some reading about CFS and how its effectiveness at knocking out conscious processing. Also, the authors have made their stimuli available on-line so the stimuli used in the study (the congruous and incongruous images) can be evaluated, and possibly used, by other researchers. This kind of sharing and openness is essential to the scientific process. It specifically allows others to evaluate whether the only difference between the two types of images is the relations that exist between the objects and background in the image. If other differences exist – something as simple as luminance or amount of detail – that could relate to the differences seen in responses, critically changing the interpretation that can be made of the results. The second issue is more related to the “keeps me awake at night” aspect of the study. One could look at this kind of research and say, “So what?”. Or, one could look at it and wonder at what it tells us about our mind. Or, one could consider what it means about how we operate in the world. Our behaviors. The supposed focus of psychology. This is much trickier, but an earlier study pops to mind. Three years ago, Voh and Schooler (2008) published a study illustrating how exposing participants to ideas that challenged the notion of free-will resulted in an increase in “immoral” behaviors (cheating on a test and taking money that was not earned). You can also check out this link to an article by a social psychologist that gives the research and its implications a more thorough treatment. Anyhow, as unconscious processing takes on more and more of what we have considered to be the realm of conscious, willful processing, we have to sync these ideas with what we think about free-will, personal responsibility, such and so forth… Fascinating. I’ll be up tonight thinking about it.


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