Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ascendancy of the Unconscious Mind

Scientists are beginning to zero in on the different types of unconscious brain activity which underlie and inform ordinary conscious awareness. From mathematics to music to visual awareness to moods, our unconscious minds form the foundation and framework for whatever our conscious minds choose to build.

We have looked at Daniel Kahneman's theories of the fast mind (intuitive, automatic, unconscious) and the slow mind (conscious, deliberative) and discovered that although we cannot live without our fast intuitive minds, we cannot altogether trust them either. Regardless, since we are stuck with this mode of cognition, we had best set about understanding it as well as we can.
Today the domain of the unconscious—described more generally in the realm of cognitive neuroscience as any processing that does not give rise to conscious awareness—is routinely studied in hundreds of laboratories using objective psychophysical techniques amenable to statistical analysis. Let me tell you about two experiments that reveal some of the capabilities of the unconscious mind. Both depend on “masking,” as it is called in the jargon, or hiding things from view. Subjects look but don’t see.

Unconscious Arithmetic
The first experiment is a collaboration among Filip Van Opstal of Ghent University in Belgium, Floris P. de Lange of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and Stanislas Dehaene of the Coll├Ęge de France in Paris. Dehaene, director of the INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, is best known for his investigations of the brain mechanisms underlying counting and numbers. Here he explored the extent to which a simple sum or an average can be computed outside the pale of consciousness. Adding 7, 3, 5 and 8 is widely assumed to be a quintessential serial process that requires consciousness. Van Opstal and his colleagues proved the opposite in an indirect but clever and powerful way...

...What’s Wrong with this Picture?
Liad Mudrik and Dominique Lamy of Tel Aviv University and Assaf Breska and Leon Y. Deouell of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem set out to test the extent to which the unconscious can integrate all the information in any one picture into a unified and coherent visual experience. Giulio Tononi and I had proposed in the last Consciousness Redux column [September/October 2011] that the ability to rapidly integrate all the disparate elements within a scene and place them into context is one of the hallmarks of consciousness.

The Israeli researchers used “continuous flash suppression,” a powerful masking technique, to render images invisible. A series of rapidly changing, randomly colored patterns was flashed into one eye while a photograph of a person carrying out some task was slowly faded into the other eye. For a few seconds, the picture is completely invisible, and the subject can see only the colored shapes. Because the images become progressively stronger, eventually they will break through, and the subject will see them. It is like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility fading with time and revealing what is underneath... _More at SciAm
The above short SciAm description of the two lines of research, should serve as a teaser for those interested in how the brain works. Here is more information from researchers themselves:

Von Opstal et al Rapid Parallel Semantic Processing of Numbers Without Awareness (Abs)

Full PDF article Von Opstal, Dehaene, De Lange

Integration Without Awareness: Expanding the Limits of Unconscious Processing (PDF) Mudrik, Lamy, et al

More publications from Lamy's lab

George Alvarez: Representing Multiple Objects as an Ensemble Enhances Visual Cognition (PDF) How unconscious ensemble coding helps us effortlessly keep track of multiple objects.

It is only by understanding both our strengths and our weaknesses that we can plot our path through life's challenges and obstacles. In many ways, our intuitive and automatic unconscious minds are both a strength and a weakness.

Certainly if we do not put in the effort to understand our own minds, eventually someone else will. And they are not as likely to have our best interests at heart.

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