Unconscious information has been shown to influence motivation, reward value and decision making, emotional processing, object recognition, semantic processing, and action planning/execution. Van Gaal et al. now look for evidence of unconscious cognitive control. From their text and the abstract:
Cognitive control becomes necessary when routine behavior (e.g., driving a car) is interrupted unexpectedly by information (e.g., a 'no-go' stimulus such as a pedestrian crossing the street) that calls for behavioral adaptations (e.g., braking fiercely). Generally speaking, it is thought that one should be conscious of the control-initiating stimulus to implement control and to overcome or to inhibit automatized ongoing behavior ("to regain control"). The recruitment and implementation of such control processes depend strongly on the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is, of all brain regions, also the one most often associated with conscious experience. Therefore, it seems likely that consciousness and cognitive control are intimately related and this belief is so strong that many authors naturally refer to the concept of "conscious cognitive control" as if "unconscious cognitive control" is inconceivable.
We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate to what extent unconscious "no-go" stimuli are capable of reaching cortical areas involved in inhibitory control, particularly the inferior frontal cortex (IFC) and the pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA). Participants performed a go/no-go task that included conscious (weakly masked) no-go trials, unconscious (strongly masked) no-go trials, as well as go trials. Replicating typical neuroimaging findings, response inhibition on conscious no-go stimuli was associated with a (mostly right-lateralized) frontoparietal "inhibition network." Here, we demonstrate, however, that an unconscious no-go stimulus also can activate prefrontal control networks, most prominently the IFC and the pre-SMA. Moreover, if it does so, it brings about a substantial slowdown in the speed of responding, as if participants attempted to inhibit their response but just failed to withhold it completely. Interestingly, overall activation in this "unconscious inhibition network" correlated positively with the amount of slowdown triggered by unconscious no-go stimuli. In addition, neural differences between conscious and unconscious control are revealed. These results expand our understanding of the limits and depths of unconscious information processing in the human brain and demonstrate that prefrontal cognitive control functions are not exclusively influenced by conscious information.
Figure - Neural activation associated with unconsciously triggered no-go inhibition. The contrast between responded, strongly masked no-go trials and responded, strongly masked go trials revealed significant activation in three a priori hypothesized regions of interest (pre-SMA and left/right IFC).