Masters Thesis

Attentional processing through external control: implications for consciousness

In everyday life, consciousness appears to be insulated from external control. Processes such as decision making seem voluntary. However, recent theories propose that consciousness operates automatically in a manner resembling a reflex. To investigate the boundary conditions of involuntary processes, the Reflexive Imagery Task (RIT) has been employed to elicit and measure the involuntary entry of contents into consciousness. The current study sought to extend the RIT to attention, while pairing the behavioral measures of the task with electroencephalography (EEG). By manipulating perceptual load and the duration of the presentation of stimuli, we observed decreased frequency and increased latency of involuntary cognitions for stimuli presented for brief durations (90 ms) in comparison to stimuli presented for long durations (10 s). Alpha power reflected subjects’ reports of involuntary cognitions, such that alpha power was significantly lower in the 10 second condition in comparison to the conditions with brief stimuli durations. These findings suggest that environmental content can directly affect how attention is allocated to external stimuli. That the cognitions were involuntary supports the view that attention could also operate reflexively under certain circumstances. This is consistent with a contemporary framework that construes attention as an effect, rather than as a cause, of processing. These findings have implications for many areas of research concerned with high-level cognitive control, including models of attention and action selection.