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Neuroscientist. 2012 Jun;18(3):287-301. doi: 10.1177/1073858411404079. Epub 2011 May 31.

Unconscious high-level information processing: implication for neurobiological theories of consciousness.

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  • 1Cognitive Neuroscience Group, Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.


Theories about the neural correlates and functional relevance of consciousness have traditionally assigned a crucial role to the prefrontal cortex in generating consciousness as well as in orchestrating high-level conscious control over behavior. However, recent neuroscientific findings show that prefrontal cortex can be activated unconsciously. The depth, direction, and scope of these activations depend on several top-down factors such as the task being probed (task-set, strategy) and on (temporal/spatial) attention. Regardless, such activations-when mediated by feedforward activation only-do not lead to a conscious sensation. Although unconscious, these prefrontal activations are functional, in the sense that they are associated with behavioral effects of cognitive control, such as response inhibition, task switching, conflict monitoring, and error detection. These findings challenge the pivotal role of the prefrontal cortex in consciousness. Instead, it appears that specific brain areas (or cognitive modules) may support specific cognitive functions but that consciousness is independent of this. Conscious sensations arise only when the brain areas involved engage in recurrent interactions enabling the long-lasting exchange of information between brain regions. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that also the state of consciousness, for example, in vegetative state patients or during sleep and anesthesia, is closely related to the scope and extent of residual recurrent interactions among brain regions.

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