Cognition with and without awareness
Geoffrey Underwood and James E. H. Bright
What does awareness do for cognition? By attending to part of the environment we can gain awareness, but apart from this change in the quality of conscious experience is awareness associated with a cognitive change? Is it necessary to be conscious of an event in order to perceive it, to remember it, or to incorporate it into our abstracted representations? These questions about the relationship between performance and our mental states during performance have been part of psychology for many generations, and have undergone as many formulations. The contemporary debate about the distinction between implicit and explicit processes again foregrounds the question of whether we can process information without explicit knowledge of the cognitive processes that are involved. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce some of the issues involved in establishing the implicit/explicit distinction, and to set the current debate in the context of a longer running argument about the necessity of awareness for information processing.
Much of the evidence to be reviewed here suggests that the recognition of simple stimuli can be achieved without attention, and even without awareness. This does not imply that attention serves no purpose or that awareness adds nothing to cognition, however. When we focus our attention not only do we become selectively aware of some parts of the environment to the exclusion of others, but these changes in our personal perceptions can be observed in our behaviour. Johnston and Wilson ( 1980) compared the effects of focused attention against the effects of asking subjects to listen to two messages at once, using a dichotic listening task. The direction of attention was manipulated by either informing the listener as to which message would contain the target word (pre-cueing), or providing no information upon which selection of messages could be made. Johnston and Wilson first established that with attention divided between the two messages, performance is influenced by the word presented at the same time as the target. This effect disappeared when the subjects were pre-cued as to which message would contain the target, and could therefore focus upon an attended message. The comparison