To further our understanding of the function of conscious experience we need to know which cognitive processes require awareness and which do not. Here, we show that an unconscious stimulus can trigger inhibitory control processes, commonly ascribed to conscious control mechanisms. We combined the metacontrast masking paradigm and the Go/No-Go paradigm to study whether unconscious No-Go signals can actively trigger high-level inhibitory control processes, strongly associated with the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Behaviorally, unconscious No-Go signals sometimes triggered response inhibition to the level of complete response termination and yielded a slow down in the speed of responses that were not inhibited. Electroencephalographic recordings showed that unconscious No-Go signals elicit two neural events: (1) an early occipital event and (2) a frontocentral event somewhat later in time. The first neural event represents the visual encoding of the unconscious No-Go stimulus, and is also present in a control experiment where the masked stimulus has no behavioral relevance. The second event is unique to the Go/No-Go experiment, and shows the subsequent implementation of inhibitory control in the PFC. The size of the frontal activity pattern correlated highly with the impact of unconscious No-Go signals on subsequent behavior. We conclude that unconscious stimuli can influence whether a task will be performed or interrupted, and thus exert a form of cognitive control. These findings challenge traditional views concerning the proposed relationship between awareness and cognitive control and stretch the alleged limits and depth of unconscious information processing.Here is the procedure. SOA is the stimulus-onset asynchrony, the interval between the onsets of the two stimuli. (I wish these people would remind us what these jargon abbreviations mean, so I don't have go look them up to remind myself. )
Stimuli and trial timing of the masked Go/No-Go task and the control experiment. The gray circle and black cross duration was 16.7 ms. Go signal duration was 100 ms. In conscious No-Go trials, the SOA between the No-Go signal and the Go signal was 83 ms. Participants had to respond to the Go signal (black metacontrast mask) but were instructed to withhold their response when a No-Go signal preceded the Go signal. In the masked Go/No-Go task, a gray circle served as a No-Go signal, whereas in the control experiment, the No-Go signal was a black cross. Therefore, the masked gray circle was associated with inhibition in the masked Go/No-Go task and thus served as an unconscious No-Go signal. In the control experiment, the unconscious gray circle was not associated with inhibition (and was task irrelevant) because participants were instructed to inhibit their responses on a black cross. Comparing processing of unconscious gray circles between both experiments enabled us to test whether (1) high-level inhibitory control processes can be triggered unconsciously, (2) unconscious No-Go signals reach prefrontal areas, and (3) task relevance influences the depth of processing of unconscious stimuli.