This work by Martens et al. demonstrates that our conscious attention to one task area (such as noting geometric shapes) can sensitize unconscious processes in that area such as subliminal priming (facilitatory effects elicited by masked stimuli that are not consciously perceived.) This shows that unconscious processing is crucially dependent on top-down attention, and contrasts with the classical view that unconscious cognition is characterized by the lack of top-down influences.
Are unconscious processes susceptible to attentional influences? In two subliminal priming experiments, we investigated whether task sets differentially modulate the sensitivity of unconscious processing pathways. We developed a novel procedure for masked semantic priming of words (Experiment 1) and masked visuomotor priming of geometrical shapes (Experiment 2). Before presentation of the masked prime, participants performed an induction task in which they attended to either semantic or perceptual object features designed to activate a semantic or perceptual task set, respectively. Behavioral and electrophysiological effects showed that the induction tasks differentially modulated subliminal priming: Semantic priming, which involves access to conceptual meaning, was found after the semantic induction task but not after the perceptual induction task. Visuomotor priming was observed after the perceptual induction task but not after the semantic induction task. These results demonstrate that unconscious cognition is influenced by attentional control. Unconscious processes in perceptual and semantic processing streams are coordinated congruently with higher-level action goals.