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Neuroscience research challenges a prominent theory of consciousness

By: April Carson

The psychological debate about how, and to what extent, the unconscious processing of information affects our behavior has always been one of the most contentious issues in psychology. In the early part of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that our behaviors are driven by thoughts, emotions, and memories that lie hidden deep within the unconscious mind — an idea that became very fashionable but was eventually debunked as unscientific.

However, recent research suggests that most of our brain activity goes unnoticed by us. Neuroscientists have long known that we are largely unaware of much of our brain's activity; yet unconscious processing does, in fact, influence behavior. Some researchers, on the other hand, claim that the amount of unconscious processing is restricted.

Unconsciously processed visual information is now known to be sent to a larger network of brain areas involved in higher-order cognitive activities, according to a recent brain scanning research. The findings contribute to the controversy about whether or not unconscious information processing affects the brain and behavior, and they prompted the researchers who published it to modify one of the most prominent theories of consciousness.

"These results show that unconsciousness is not just about a lack of awareness," said study senior author Melvyn Goodale, the Canada Research Chair in Visual Neuroscience at Western University in London, Ontario. "It's also about what you do with the information once it has been processed."

Ning Mei and his colleagues at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language in Spain recruited 7 individuals and presented them with visual stimuli while performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on their brains. The two halves of the images were equally vivid. All of them could be categorized into ten categories, such as animal or boat. A total of 1,728 pictures was viewed during a six-day period with a one-hour scanning session each day over a six-day period by the participants.

"We found that the two hemispheres of the brain were independently processing information," said Mei. " even though the participants were not aware of it."

The researchers then used a mathematical model to show that, if the two hemispheres were indeed working independently, they would be expected to disagree on what was being seen about 60% of the time. And that's exactly what happened.

"Our results challenge the dominant view in neuroscience that we are aware of only a small part of what is going on in our brains," said Mei. "It suggests that there is a lot more activity going on in the unconscious mind than we thought."

After determining the brain activity pattern linked with each image, the researchers then showed the same photos for shorter periods of time in subsequent tests. In some cases, the pictures were shown for 47 milliseconds (ms), giving participants a clear sense of them. Others had them on display for 38 ms, providing just enough time to glimpse at them. They were also shown for 25 ms in others; as a result, they did not enter participant attention.

When shown for the shortest durations of time and when participants were unable to identify their contents, even if they quickly forgot what they'd seen, their brain activity patterns provided enough information for researchers to differentiate between animate and inanimate objects. In other words, unconscious processing yielded meaningful facts about the images that became available to higher-level cognitive processes.

The findings, which are unveiled in the journal Nature Human Behavior, claim that mental representations of conscious and unconscious information overlap in certain parts of the visual pathway, and that they call for global workspace theories of consciousness to be revised.

"The primary message of our paper is that the global workspace theory--which has been very influential in neuroscience and philosophy of mind--is wrong," said study author Christof Koch, president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. "It's not that the theory is completely wrong, but it's wrong in a fundamental way."

According to global workspace theory, consciousness arises when information from various parts of the brain is integrated into a single, coherent representation in a structure known as the thalamus. This representation then becomes available to other parts of the brain, including those responsible for motor control and higher-level cognition.

However, the new study challenges this view, finding that consciousness may not require information from the thalamus after all.

"Our results show that you can have activity in the cortex that is sufficient for consciousness, even in the absence of any activity in the thalamus," said study co-author Koch. "This suggests that the thalamus is not necessary for consciousness, at least under the conditions of our experiment."

According to the global workspace theories, conscious awareness emerges when a large-scale central network hub of brain regions in the frontal and parietal lobes "broadcasts" information so that it may be accessed by other neural systems involved in cognitive processes such as attention, language, and working memory. As a consequence, various types of data are processed in their own local domains before being sent to conscious awareness if they are first received and then shared by the main center.

The theory has been influential, with supporters including well-known cognitive neuroscientists such as Stanislas Dehaene. But it has also been critiqued on various grounds, including its reliance on the controversial notion of a "neural correlate of consciousness".

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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