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Front Hum Neurosci. 2012 Mar 23;6:61. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00061. eCollection 2012.

Executive control over unconscious cognition: attentional sensitization of unconscious information processing.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, University of Ulm Ulm, Germany.


Unconscious priming is a prototypical example of an automatic process, which is initiated without deliberate intention. Classical theories of automaticity assume that such unconscious automatic processes occur in a purely bottom-up driven fashion independent of executive control mechanisms. In contrast to these classical theories, our attentional sensitization model of unconscious information processing proposes that unconscious processing is susceptible to executive control and is only elicited if the cognitive system is configured accordingly. It is assumed that unconscious processing depends on attentional amplification of task-congruent processing pathways as a function of task sets. This article provides an overview of the latest research on executive control influences on unconscious information processing. I introduce refined theories of automaticity with a particular focus on the attentional sensitization model of unconscious cognition which is specifically developed to account for various attentional influences on different types of unconscious information processing. In support of the attentional sensitization model, empirical evidence is reviewed demonstrating executive control influences on unconscious cognition in the domains of visuo-motor and semantic processing: subliminal priming depends on attentional resources, is susceptible to stimulus expectations and is influenced by action intentions and task sets. This suggests that even unconscious processing is flexible and context-dependent as a function of higher-level executive control settings. I discuss that the assumption of attentional sensitization of unconscious information processing can accommodate conflicting findings regarding the automaticity of processes in many areas of cognition and emotion. This theoretical view has the potential to stimulate future research on executive control of unconscious processing in healthy and clinical populations.


attentional control; automatic processes; emotional priming; semantic priming; subliminal perception; unconscious information processing; visuo-motor priming

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