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2007 | 3 | 1-2 | 289-306

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Top-down modulation of unconscious 'automatic' processes: A gating framework


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In classical theories of automaticity, automatic processes are usually thought to occur autonomously and independently of higher level top-down factors (e.g., Posner & Snyder, 1975). However, already Neumann (1984) pointed out that the cognitive system has to be configured in a certain way for automatic processes to occur. In extension of his work, I propose a gating framework to account for the influence of top-down factors such as attention, intention and task set on automatic processes such as masked response or semantic priming. It is assumed that task representations held in prefrontal cortex regulate the gain of neurons in visual and sematic association cortex thereby modulating the effects of unconsciously perceived masked stimuli on further 'automatic' information processing steps. In support of the postulated gating framework, recent studies demonstrated a top-down modulation of automatic processes. Behavioral and electro-physiological studies with the masked response priming and semantic priming paradigms show that masked priming effects crucially depend (i) on temporal attention to the masked prime, (ii) on intentions or action plans and (iii) on the task set active immediately before masked prime presentation. For instance, masked semantic priming was only observed when the preceding task set required the orientation to semantic word features, but not when it required orientation to perceptual word features. These results support the view that unconscious automatic processes are modulated by top-down factors. They are suggestive of a gating mechanism which orchestrates the conscious and unconscious information processing streams.








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  • Department of Psychiatry, University of Ulm, Germany


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