© C.O. Evans & J. Fudjack
Addendum D - Subliminal Perception
Attempts to account for the phenomena observed in biofeedback
research characteristically appeal to the subject's subjective
experience of the process, as we have seen in the previous section.
We have described the 'subjective information' believed to be at
the disposal of the subject in terms of the concept of an
underlying feeling state. We hope to have shown the utility of
applying this concept to an explanation of the biofeedback
But the concept of an underlying feeling state, being the
concept of a feeling whole which is not itself experienced as an
object of attention but nevertheless experienced by the subject,
entails a distinction between two kinds of awareness, so to speak,
which we have referred to by the terms 'subsidiary awareness' and
'object of attention'. The attentive model proposes, then, not
only a distinction between object of attention and
Attempts to account for the phenomena observed in biofeedback research characteristically appeal to the subject's subjective experience of the process, as we have seen in the previous section. We have described the 'subjective information' believed to be at the disposal of the subject in terms of the concept of an underlying feeling state. We hope to have shown the utility of applying this concept to an explanation of the biofeedback phenomena.
But the concept of an underlying feeling state, being the concept of a feeling whole which is not itself experienced as an object of attention but nevertheless experienced by the subject, entails a distinction between two kinds of awareness, so to speak, which we have referred to by the terms 'subsidiary awareness' and 'object of attention'. The attentive model proposes, then, not only a distinction between object of attention and
underlying feeling state (which we see to be of use in interpreting biofeedback research), it also proposes that the underlying feeling state is the mode in which a person experiences his or her subsidiary awareness of the environment. From a different area of research, research in subliminal perception, we adduce evidence for this further claim that the underlying feeling state is the mode in which subsidiary awareness is experienced.
Subliminal experiments frequently make use of biofeedback apparatus (such as the EEG machines and GSR instruments) but without application of the biofeedback principle. We have the former without the latter when the apparatus is used to supply the researcher with information about the physical processes of the subject without this information being made available to the subject. Indeed, a most interesting use of biofeedback apparatus is in detecting the occurrence of subliminal perception as Barbara Brown tells us in the following description of a classic experiment in this area of research.
Probably the most interesting use of the skin's orienting response has been in detecting subliminal perception. Naughty words or other emotion-arousing words were flashed on a screen so briefly that the subjects could not perceive them intelligently. Mixed in with the arousing words were some neutral words. Although it was impossible for the subjects to see the words and so consciously recognize them, something in their brains did recognize every word, and this recognition was voiced by the skin. For every naughty word there was an orienting response by the skin, but no response to the neutral or bland words. A number of brain electrical responses have also been found to occur at the same time, indicating that long before conscious recognition the body and its subconscious substructure both recognizes and make judgments about what goes on in the environment. 116
In this experiment a biofeedback instrument detects the occurrence of a
subliminal perception by measuring the response of the skin of a subject. And Brown chooses to describe the skin response registered by the biofeedback instrument as an 'orienting' response. But attempts to orient are attempts to context and a person's contexting of the whole situation he finds himself in is done, according to the attentive model, with subsidiary awareness; conversely, significant changes in subsidiary awareness could be understood to constitute a re-contexting of the person's whole situation. Hence we can take Brown's choice of terms as our first indication that the biofeedback instrument that registers change in skin electrical activity (and by hypothesis, change in underlying feeling state) also to be indicating change in the subject's subsidiary awareness of the environment. That the same instrument should simultaneously perform both these functions is not surprising since, on the attentive model, the underlying feeling state of the subject is the mode in which the subject's subsidiary awareness of the environment is experienced.
However, according to Brown's description, the biofeedback instrument in measuring change in skin electrical activity detects the occurrence of a single subliminal perception; and where there is no change in skin electrical activity, it might be thought, no subliminal perception has occurred. We ask the reader to be aware that on our interpretation the absence of change in skin electrical activity would not indicate a lack of subsidiary awareness on the part of the subject. On the attentive model, insofar as the subject is a conscious being, subsidiary awareness is present. The biofeedback instrument, in registering change in skin electrical activity, is not indicating the momentary presence of subsidiary awareness, but rather the occurrence of
change in an ever-present subsidiary awareness. We can make this point by saying that in the experiment Brown describes there are two kinds of subliminal stimuli; those with no measurable effect on the subject as detected by a biofeedback instrument (or by a word association test which, as we shall see, is also used) and those with a measurable effect. We offer the explanation that undetectable subliminal stimuli join and reinforce the reigning contexting components of subsidiary awareness and do not serve to distract the subject from his preoccupation with his existing objects of attention (prevailing storyline), and detectable stimuli join rival contexting components of subsidiary awareness, which serve to distract the subject from the concerns presently engaging his attention and deflect it in some other direction (i.e., toward substitute objects of attention which are alien to the reigning context). In changing subsidiary awareness in a significant way the detectable stimuli behave as rival contexting components which, if insistent enough, would recontext the situation of the subject and change the objects of attention to those of a different storyline.
From the point of view of the attentive model, then, the subject continually enjoys subsidiary awareness of his environment and the experiments in subliminal perception such as the above can be understood as experiments in the detection of the contexting function of components of subsidiary awareness. Those components whose contexting functions are detected are those components that serve to recontext the subject's situation, that is - restructure subsidiary awareness. We might say that the contexting function of the class of stimuli to which the 'naughty' words belong are detectable because they strive to effect a change in subsidiary awareness which is
reflected in a change in physiological activity and registered by the biofeedback instrument. By presenting stimuli under unique experimental conditions the subliminal experimenter isolates the effect of those particular components of subsidiary awareness. And the experiment he performs can be thought of as stimulating the natural occurrence of components of subsidiary awareness with strong functions in the service of a rival context.
One last point regarding Brown's description. The words presented the subject in the above experiment, in being flashed on the screen for an extremely short duration, are obviously being presented in such a manner that they could not be objects of attention for the subject. However, it is our contention that the words so presented are experienced in consciousness, albeit subsidiarily, by the subject. The alternative to this understanding is that they are not experienced at all, in which case the phenomenon of subliminal perception is one of pure neurophysiological response. (When we return to these matters we shall discover that Brown's notion of the 'subconscious substructure' of the body merely serves to personify the neurophysiological processes that she believes to be taking place completely outside the realm of the subject's consciousness.) We have already presented the theory that there is an experiential correlate to such physiological processes - the underlying feeing state of the subject. But we shall adduce further evidence from the experiments in subliminal perception against the hypothesis that we are dealing with a non-conscious neurophysiological response. For we shall see that specifying the conditions under which a stimulus can be subliminally perceived entails specifying that the subject
be engaged in certain well defined activities of consciousness at the time. If the response to a subliminal perception were a purely neurophysiological phenomenon one would expect it to be a process independent of the activities of consciousness of the subject.
Our first step in justifying the claim that subliminal experiments can be understood as experiments in the detection of the contexting function of components of subsidiary awareness is to point out that it is necessary to know that there are two distinct types of subliminal perception experiments. One type of experiment is ideally suited for interpretation in the light of the model which conceives of consciousness as subsidiary awareness/object of attention while the other type introduces complications which need to be dealt with separately.
The type of experiment to which the model readily applies is the one in which recognizable shapes are presented to subjects for a long time at levels of intensity too low for them to immediately achieve status as objects of attention. In such cases there is no difficulty in following the proposition that the subject of the experiment is subsidiarily aware of the shape presented. Here is an account of an experiment of this type.
In one of the first experiments carried out on this phenomenon, observers were shown colored shapes resembling a banana, an orange, a lemon, and a leaf, in very dim light. They were told to look at the screen on which these shapes were projected, and at the same time imagine each of them in turn. They then thought that what appeared was in fact a visual image, and were not conscious that they perceived them at all. However, if they were instructed beforehand that they would perceive these objects, they did so normally. 117
It is convincing to argue in this case that the subjects were subsidiarily aware of the colored shapes since they were not too dimly presented to be
turned into objects of attention upon a change in expectation. At the same time it is made clear that they were not objects of attention for the subjects. We can also argue that the subsidiarily experienced colored shapes performed specific contexting functions in that they played a part in switching the attention of the subjects to objects of attention (namely, visual images) which had definite connections with them (by sharing the same shape or color). Thus we construe the statement in the passage that the subjects 'were not conscious that they perceived them at all' as meaning that they had not become objects of attention for them.
It is important for our interpretation to notice that all subliminal perception experiments involve testing people who are actively engaging their attention. For it is only when attention is engaged that subliminal perception occurs. In other experiments the subject's attention is directed to the screens and to what might appear on it. In the case of the above experiment subjects were asked to create visual images against the background of the screen. The visual image was the object of attention for the subjects and that which was subliminally perceived (the actual projection on the screen) was experienced as subsidiary to the object of attention (the visual image). Subliminal perception can be expected to occur, as will become more evident as we inspect further experiments in the following pages, only when the stimuli presented is within certain limits defined by what the subject is actively engaging attention on during the experiment.
The other type of subliminal perception experiment is the type to which the experiment with naughty words belongs. When words or pictures are flashed on a screen at speeds too fast to permit deciphering they are said to be
tachistoscopically presented because the instrument used in presenting the words or pictures (at speeds in the msec. range) is called a tachistoscope. From the point of view that subliminal perception experiments are experiments in the detection of the contexting function of components of subsidiary awareness the tachistoscopic experiments have a distinct advantage. As compared with the low intensity stimulation type experiment, in which a possible component is presented for a long time, the tachistoscopic experiment presents the component for a very short duration. This allows us to reach greater certainty that a particular component is performing a contexting function relative to an object of attention since we can detect the immediate effect of the subliminal perception upon the subject's shift to a new object of attention. In other words, because of the short time factor a correlation between a component of subsidiary awareness and an object of attention can be definitely established. To put it yet another way, we are suggesting that although both types of experiments are doing the same thing, namely, identifying the contexting function of components of subsidiary awareness, the experiments in tachistoscopic perception give us greater control over our study of the process and enable us to be more confidant in attributing a particular change in object of attention to a particular component of subsidiary awareness since the experimenter has control over when and whether that component is a component of subsidiary awareness.
Now that we have approached these experiments under the new paradigm we can point out that they have universally been understood under the old paradigm of the spotlight model of consciousness. Our interest in making this point stems from the fact that all experiments involving subliminal
perception have been surrounded in controversy. Much of the controversy, we hope to show, can be traced to the confusion created by describing the experiments in terms of the spotlight model of consciousness. As to the fact of controversy we offer Vernon's opinion.
It is not surprising to find that the results of these experiments were as variable and as much in disagreement with each other as any we have discussed heretofore. 118
As to the fact that researchers assume the spotlight model we offer the following description as evidence.
In later experiments, shapes were shown at an intensity supposed to be below the absolute threshold of vision. Subsequently it was calculated that in may cases in which the observers were not conscious of having perceived these shapes, their guesses as to what had been presented were nevertheless more often correct than could have been expected by chance - provided that the intensity was only slightly below threshold. This phenomenon has been termed 'subliminal perception', since apparently the observers did in fact perceive at least some of these shapes without being conscious that they did so. 119
First of all we notice the assumption at work that for anything to be described as consciously perceived it must necessarily be an object of attention and conversely, every object of attention is consciously perceived. Hence, evidence of perceiving below the absolute threshold of vision must be construed as evidence of perception outside the spotlight of conscious perception.
The only way left open by the spotlight model to account for the phenomena of subliminal perception is the hypothesis that the information must have reached the subject's brain via unconscious mental processes, or what Brown calls 'subconscious awareness'. Thus Shevrin, a leading researcher in this field, says,
Subliminal perception has been a fertile source of controversy over the years as well it should be; the theoretical stakes are high, for if unconscious cognitive processes exist then all efforts to identify psychology with either conscious experience or observable behavior would be inherently limited and unsound. 120
Shevrin goes on to quote with approval the conclusions of another research team.
Posner and Boies, on the basis of their work on attention, have concluded that "conscious awareness is itself rather late in the sequence of mental processing". 121
Both these passages exhibit the same spotlight model in the assumption that if an object is not an object of attention the subject has no awareness of it. But neither of them raise a question of fundamental importance for their position and that is the question: Why, if perception can take place at the level of unconscious cognitive processes is the subject not always exactly right about the content of the subliminal message presented on the screen? In other words, why not ascribe perfect vision to the unconscious mind and envisage it as being capable of reading any subliminally presented message no matter how fine the print?
Shevrin has conducted subliminal perception experiments under conditions which totally preclude actual seeing of the subliminal message.
In our research we intentionally devised an exposure condition (1 msec) so that subjects were totally unaware of the stimulus. 122
Describing this condition as the absolute detection threshold Shevrin describes the experience a subject has when confronted by a message presented below the absolute detection threshold as follows.
By detection threshold, we mean that under the given conditions subjects do not report seeing anything but the fixation point and occasionally phenomena associated with the fixation point (it "wobbles", "drifts", "grows larger", etc.). 123
Under these conditions the subjects were given word association tests to establish whether any of the tachistoscopically presented words had been recognized, and he found that although the actual word presented was not often guessed, an approximation of, or association to, the given word was often produced. The point then is, Why did the subject have such a hazy idea of the actual word presentation that he could only produce an association and not the presented word itself? Of course, answers could be proposed to this question, but the fact remains that the researchers have not explained why there is this inability to produce the actual word. If the word is picked up at all by these postulated unconscious processes (conceived of as purely neurophysiological and non- experiential) why is it not picked up accurately?
If Shevrin does not explicitly pose such questions he nevertheless seems to be sensitive to the problem, and his solution is exactly the one we would expect for anyone who assumes the spotlight model. To account for the subliminal perception simply postulate anther spotlight! Thus we find ourselves with a double spotlight model. This also is essentially what Brown does when she introduces the concept of subconscious awareness. 124 In the next passage we find Shevrin at first dismissing the possibility we have been exploring, according to which subliminal perception has the property of perfect fidelity. This possibility he identifies in terms of the concept of neutral registration which would give the subject complete information about the visual environment to any degree of detail.
Elsewhere I have hypothesized that the existence of subliminal perception forces us to assume that attention can be unconscious, and that a concept of neutral registration which does not involve attention and motivation is untenable. (Shevrin, 1968). It was argued that perception implies attention, whether it be conscious,What the author is saying is that a subject's unconscious cognitive processes are as selective in respect of what is noticed of the environment as is conscious perception itself. Thus, appeal to unconscious attention is an appeal to a second spotlight operating independently of the one which is conscious awareness.
Our argument is that the spotlight model has forced researchers in subliminal perception to introduce a double spotlight model in order to account for their findings. It is this whole approach to consciousness which we wish to replace with the model of consciousness as subsidiary awareness/object of attention. We shall try to show that the phenomenon of subliminal perception is amenable to common sense explanation when the findings are interpreted from the perspective of the attentive model. But before proceeding to this task it is worth observing that not all researchers are happy with the implications of the double spotlight model. As one review of the literature points out,
Holzman suggests that Shevrin needs to redefine attention to avoid the intrinsically contradictory concept of "unconscious processes that are attended to". 126
We agree with Holzman and suggest that the attentive model in fact offers just what he asks for, a redefinition of attention. But let us try to bring into relief some of the reasons for which one might be dissatisfied with the double spotlight model and the notion of unconscious attention. Experiments on subliminal perception are all experiments in the exercise of attention. To establish this point we go back to the mention of a perceptual threshold in some of the passages we have been considering. In experiments on subliminal
perception, subjects are characteristically asked to fixate attention on a screen or point on the screen. The threshold of perception for such a subject is always relative to the object of attention the subject is actively engaged in fixating. Of significance in this connection was the discovery that the absolute threshold of detection can change as the subject tries to raise his discrimination level, and the conclusion was drawn that the threshold varies for each subject according to effort; which means that at one time a tachistoscopically presented picture will be below the detection threshold for a subject (and the picture will not be an object of attention) and at another time it will be above the detection threshold although the speed of presentation of the picture has not changed. This discovery immediately raises serious doubts as to whether in a given experiment the phenomenon of subliminal perception is taking place, since what could have begun as below the threshold may as a result of paying closer attention end up above the threshold.
However, Dixon evolved an ingenious technique for raising and lowering the intensity of the subliminal stimuli pari passu with the rise and fall of the threshold, so that the former was always just below the latter.... It may be concluded that it is possible to perceive such stimuli, though not very accurately, provided that the observer's attention is directed towards their occurrence. 127
Mention of the threshold has relevance in making the case that we are indeed dealing with attention experiments in which a detection threshold can only be discovered with attention experiments in which a detection threshold can only be discovered relative to the fixation of attention. But we also find mention in this passage of the fact that the stimulus, if it is to be subliminally perceived, must be presented just below the threshold rather than much below it. Now this fact presents a difficulty, we suggest, for those theorists who postulate unconscious processes. Why should unconscious processes
be limited by the need to present the stimulus just below the threshold? And this difficulty is not resolved when the unconscious neurophysiological processes are allowed a degree of selectivity. For, replacing the idea of 'neutral registration' with the notion of a second spotlight (and the idea of unconscious attention) does not in itself explain why the selectivity exhibited by the unconscious spotlight is apparently dependent upon the selectivity exhibited by the conscious spotlight. In other words, the inter- dependence of the two spotlights remains an anomalous fact for Shevrin's theory. In contrast, the attentive model is an explicit attempt to integrate the phenomenon of subliminal perception with a theory of attention. It achieves this by detailing the relationship between object of attention and subsidiary awareness in terms of such categories as feeling, context, and physiological process.
We believe that the real significance of Dixon's threshold experiment, then, lies in the fact that it offers support for the thesis that subliminal perception experiments are experiments in the detection of the contexting functions of components of subsidiary awareness. This alternative to the interpretation that postulates a double spotlight proceeds as follows. We interpret the phenomenon of the fluctuating threshold as the phenomenon of a component of subsidiary awareness becoming an object of attention (and hence ceasing to be a phenomenon of subsidiary awareness). From this point, presentation of the subliminal stimulus is the creation of a component of subsidiary awareness that is at the brink of becoming an object of attention. We hazard the hypothesis that a subject lowers the threshold by attempting to fixate on the stimulus.
But in Dixon's experiment the component of subsidiary awareness is prevented from becoming an object of attention because the threshold lowering is counteracted by simultaneously reducing the intensity of the stimulus being presented as a component of subsidiary awareness, thus offsetting the greater sensitivity to it brought about by the subject's attempt to fixate it as an object of attention. 128
Thus by introducing a component of subsidiary awareness in the form of a subliminal stimulus, and by preventing it from itself becoming an object of attention, the researcher is in a position to study the contexting function of the introduced component. If we remind the reader that there are two classes of subliminal stimuli that can be presented, ones which are easily integrated into the subject's present context and ones which are not, we could speak of the latter as making a particularly strong demand that attention turn toward it (since it is anomalous to the present context). But in being deprived of attention it is forced to remain in subsidiary awareness to perform a contexting function. As anomalous to the subject's present context, however, it cannot be integrated into that context as a component without changing it significantly and we can hence construe it to be a contexting component of a rival context. The experimental creation of such an insistent component of subsidiary awareness which is nevertheless blocked from becoming an object of attention is tantamount to simulating the phenomenon of repression, but we shall return to this point later.
The point we wish to stress at this time is that if the rival contexting component is insistent enough we could expect it to recontext the situation for the subject and change his objects of attention to those of a different storyline.
And this is exactly what does occur, judging from a type of Experiment in which the subject is tested for the occurrence of a subliminal perception by means of a word association test.
Dixon presented a series of words, some of which were related to sex, at intensities of illumination just below the absolute threshold of vision, signalling to the observer each time one of these was shown. The observer was instructed that when he received the signal, he should say the first word that came into his head. Though none of the observers were ever conscious of having seen the stimulus words, and did not in fact report any of them correctly, yet there were many cases in which the response word had a definite association to the stimulus word. 129
What Dixon takes to be word associations are in fact objects of attention which the subject has in place of the subliminal stimulus itself becoming the object of attention. The objects of attention which are entertained in place of an insistent subliminal stimulus occur because the subliminal stimulus, being forced to remain in its status as subsidiary, nevertheless has the opportunity to play a role in providing the context for the substitute objects. The subliminal stimulus, in other words, performs a contexting function which manifests itself in the objects of attention (the response words) that occur to the subject.
This type of experiment, then, supplies evidence for ascribing a contexting function to the subliminal stimulus. The attentive model, furthermore, gives us an explanation of the connection between stimulus word and response word in terms of contexting and not in terms of word association. We therefore suggest that those responses to subliminal stimuli described in the following passage as 'based upon some old and well-established associations' are more accurately described in terms of established patterns of contexting.
Furthermore, experiments of Dixon's showed that a response made to a subliminal stimulus must be based upon some old and well-established association; it would not occur if the associations were weak and temporary. 130
The word association test is a test of contexting function: it is not a test of word association. A theory of context replaces a theory of word association.
It is enjoyable to find recent psychological research supporting a contexting theory such as ours against a word association theory such as Dixon's and Shevrin's. In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association Jenkins announced the demise of word association theory and the rise of contextualism in psychology.
The domain I have chose is memory. Associationism is most dominant and clearly revealed in this area, and, as I have pointed out, a general associationist account of almost anything leans heavily on memory.
The relationship between Jenkins' position and the one suggested here can be made clear from the following passage.
Contextualism holds that experience consists of events. Events have a quality as a whole. By quality is meant the total meaning of the event. The quality of the event is the resultant of the interaction of the experiencer and the world, that is, the interaction of the organism and the physical relations that provide support for the experience. The relations can be thought of and analyzed into textures. A texture in turn consists of strands lying in a context. 132
On the attentive model the quality of the event is the felt context of the event, and the strands lying in a context are the contexting components
of subsidiary awareness.
Let us reconsider Dixon's word association test for subliminal perception in the light of Jenkins' contextualist theory. Every time a different subliminal stimulus is presented something about the whole event of which it is a part will be different from the whole event of which some other subliminal stimulus is a part. In the case of both presentations the subject will have an experience of the context, a feel for the whole event of which the word presentation is a part. Thus the word association, the object of attention that comes to mind in response to the stimulus word, will be dependent on the feel of the context of the whole event and not on the isolated perception of the stimulus word itself. In other words, the object of attention constituting the subject's response will depend on all the strands forming the texture of a particular context.
According to this understanding a subliminal stimulus is a contexting component in subsidiary awareness and as such plays a part in subsidizing the object of attention that occurs to the subject. There is no necessity to postulate total recognition of the word at any level; in other words, there is no need to postulate a purely physiological level at which the word is recognized or to conceive of the existence of an unconscious spotlight to account for the hypothesized unconscious recognition. But Dixon and Shrevin imply that there is such a need by conceiving of the relationship between stimulus word and response word in associationist terms - for their assumption is that the unconscious recognizes the stimulus word and an associated word is brought to the attention of the conscious spotlight. As long as they are thinking in
associationist terms someone or something must recognize the stimulus word as if it were an object of attention.
This inclination to postulate the existence of some faculty that entertains the stimulus word as an object of attention is a very natural inclination, but it is one that reveals the tacit assumption of a spotlight model of consciousness. It is an inclination displayed even by those who are reluctant to give credence to the existence of an unconscious or subconscious that might perform such a function. In the following passage, for instance, we find Vernon describing an hypothesis suggested to account for the results of an experiment in which words were subliminally presented to a subject yet under less stringent conditions than those imposed by Dixon's fluctuating threshold apparatus.
It was hypothesized that, before the words were fully grasped, fragments were perceived which suggested these words and prevented full perception and verbal report. 133
In the suggested hypothesis we see the spotlight model tacitly at work: in order for something to be perceived it must be perceived as an object of attention. Hence, if a response to the subliminal stimulus is exhibited at least some fragment of the stimulus must have been perceived as an object of attention. In the case of this experiment, then, a fragment of the word became an object of attention preventing the full word from coming to attention. But the point we suggest is that one needn't conceived of perception according to the spotlight mode. One needn't, in other words, equate perception of something with taking it as an object of attention. The words in question may be perceived yet outside the scope of attention and still be thought of as bringing
about an orienting response.
The assumption we are trying to call into question is that the word must be recognized in order for an orienting response to occur. We see that those who postulate an unconscious spotlight make this assumption. But we also see those with single spotlight theory forced to adopt it too. They would contend that, if the entire stimulus is not recognized, some part or fragment if it is recognized. They thereby believe they explain the initial reaction to the stimulus.
The attentive model is intended as a corrective to the inclination toward explanation of the orienting response which appeals to 'recognition' of the subliminally presented word either by consciousness or by a hypothesized unconscious faculty. It conceives of the response to the stimulus word as different in type from responses to objects of attention which entail recognition; the response to the stimulus word is a feeling-response in which the subject can best be described as having a feel or feeling of the subliminal perception.
The following passage is worth considering because in it we see Vernon beginning to drop the assumption of the spotlight model and turning in the direction we have suggested. She is not explicit, however, about what motivates her shift.
It seemed therefore that the latter were able to guess at the nature of the taboo words before they could perceive exactly what they were, a process which has been called 'subception'. Or they perceived them before they were willing to report them. The former conclusion has been criticized as claiming that observers were perceiving something in order not to perceive it; just as in the experiment of Lazarus and McCleary the observers perceived the shocked syllables sufficiently to react to them in the psychogalvanic reflex before the could perceive them consciously.The claim that observers perceive something in order not to perceive is apparently absurd only under the assumption of the spotlight model. For the claim would reduce itself to the claim that something is being recognized in order that it may remain unrecognized. But if we reject the spotlight model we are in the position to understand that the claim amounts to saying that what is perceived needn't be noticed and in being perceived unnoticed may indeed even act to repel attention and delay or inhibit recognition.
It is interesting, in this context, to note that Freudians have been criticized for alleged absurdities similar to the one Vernon cites in the above. They are told that for consciousness to affect a censorship on repressed items it must recognize what it is repressing, in which case, however, that item cannot be construed as repressed. Our account supplies a counterargument against such objections which is made available by the role in consciousness we have assigned to feeling. The view that what is in consciousness needn't be noticed, in which case we would speak of having a feel for it, is a view which is however unavailable for Freud as long as he is insistent that consciousness be equated only with what is noticed (as we saw was his desire in the second section of this addendum). We might also mention that the requisite revision to his view on consciousness, which we explicated in that section, would also clear up difficulties inherent in his conception of an unconscious which replicates all the features of
consciousness by speaking of unconscious attention, unconscious feelings, and the like.
But let us return to the argument that people are capable of perceiving before they recognize what they are perceiving or 'perceive exactly what it is', to use Vernon's phrase. This possibility receives further explication by Vernon in a passage which reads well in the light of the attentive model of consciousness.
It is clear that events sometimes occur in the first place outside the central focus of attention, and they rapidly become focal. It was noted that we may be scarcely conscious of a familiar scene in which little or no movement or change is occurring. But if some aspect of this scene or some object in it is altered, and particularly if the change is sudden and involves movement, we immediately become aware of it, and then direct our attention upon it, investigating it and responding to it as rapidly as possible. Such events are said to force themselves upon consciousness. 135
The conditions Vernon describes here certainly fit the case of subliminal perception experiments, in which subjects are presented with rapid movements. We also draw attention to the presupposition of the phenomenon of subsidiary awareness in the reference to events which occur outside the central focus of attention.
In fact, running through Vernon's discussion, and operative in the hypothesizing of some of the researchers we have been discussing, are themes which make it appear that when these researchers consult their own experience they articulate it in a way which points to the attentive model of consciousness and away from the spotlight model. To put the point more starkly, the researchers when appealing to their own experiences are taking the role of laymen and as laymen they assume the attentive model of consciousness (tacitly). However, when they switch to the role of scientists
they assume the spotlight model (again tacitly).
Thus, in the following passage, in which we see Vernon taking the role of the layman we find a description which is essentially a description of consciousness as defined by the attentive model.
It is clear from everyday experience that we do in fact perceive many things and many aspects of the visual field without directing attention upon them. In fact, the theory has been put forward that there is a large number of 'levels of attention', varying from the highest, at which attention is focused and narrowly concentrated upon a particular part of the field, to the lowest, a bare consciousness of the marginal parts of the field. It would perhaps be preferable to say that our awareness of our surroundings varies continually, from place to place and from time to time, from a maximal to a minimal amount. We have seen that much is known as to the conditions of maximal awareness. Far less is known with regard to lower degrees of awareness. 136
From the point of view of the attentive model this passages must be read as a description of subsidiary awareness. In her very next sentence Vernon goes on to describe what we have called the contexting function of subsidiary awareness.
In discussing the effects of the background upon perception, for instance of size, shape, color, etc., it was noted that our perception of this background did in fact affect considerably the manner in which objects attended to were perceived. 137
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116. Ibid., p.75.
117. M. Vernon, The psychology of perception, 2nd ed.
(Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England:Penguin Books,1971),p.174.
118. Ibid., p.194.
119. Ibid., p.174.
120. H. Sevrin, "Does the averaged evoked response encode
subliminal perception? Yes. A reply to Schwartz and Rem."
Psychophysiology, vol. 12, no. 4 (1975), p.395.
122. Ibid., p.396.
124. B. Brown, op.cit., p.83.
125. H. Sevrin, "Brain wave correlates of subliminal stimulation,
unconscious attention, primary- and secondary-process
thinking, and repressiveness." Psychological Issues, vol. 8,
no. 2 (1973), p.71
126. R.M. Whitman, Review of: "Psychoanalytic research: three
approaches to the experimental study of subliminal processes"
[Psychological Issues, vol 8, no. 2 (1973)] American
Psychoanalytic Association Journal, vol. 23, no. 4 (1975),
127. M. Vernon, op.cit., p.176.
128. The processes of attention we have been describing and which we are viewing as deliberate obstructions to the natural functioning of attention processes have also been investigated in laboratories using the latest advances in computer technology and brain wave research. However, no clear-cut correlation has been made between these physiological processes and subjective experience. The attentive model allows us to formulate one possibility which the research findings in this area seem to support. It is our hypothesis, then, that measures of average evoked response (AER) are measure of items becoming objects of attention. What this means is that experiments in which a subject's AER can be correlated with the presentation of a stimulus are to be construed as experiments in which a subject's object of attention can be identified by correlation with a physiological process (AER). Aer decrement, on this hypothesis, becomes the hypothesis that the decrement is a measure of the swiftness with which an object of attention is displaced by another object of attention: i.e., retention time as an object of attention. Increment of AER is a measure of an object of attention gaining in gestalt--increasing retention. Concerning findings of one experiment, Buchsbaum, one of the experimenters, tell us,
Three different effects were seen: (1) an across- session, "arousal" effect which acted on all intensities fairly evenly, affecting slope minimally: (2) an "attention" effect which operated primarily to enhance amplitude for low-intensity stimuli and this lower AER slope; and (3) a 'sensory overload" effect which operated primarily to reduce AER amplitude at high intensities. Thus reducing appears to be linked to the active phenomena of paying attention and protection from too- intense levels of sensory input. Habitual tendencies to attend to sensory stimuli may be reflected in the AER amplitude/intensity slope as well as habitual tendencies to inhibit sensory input. [M. Buchsbaum, "Self-regulation of stimulus intensity: augmenting/reducing and the averaged evoked response." In G. E. Schwartz and D. Shapiro, op.cit., p.122.]Among these effects we single out the second as an identification of the attention process which in Dixon's experiments is described as threshold lowering. However, in the AER experiments it was found that people were either reducers or augmenters. Buchsbaum does not suggest that reducers may be introverts and augmenters may be extroverts, but his findings about reducers make an interesting connection with the theory of schizophrenia we offered in Part III.
Buchsbaum and Silverman hypothesized that reducers were hypersensitive to low-level sensory stimuli and thus required some compensatory process to protect them from sensory inundation at high intensities. Indeed, AER reducers were found to have lower visual threshold ... than AER augmenters. ...And at low to moderate light levels, reducers had larger amplitude AERs than augmenters. [Ibid., p.125]All we need to add, to make the connection we are claiming, is the following passage from Buchsbaum.
Interestingly, negative reaction/stimulus intensity functions were found by Tizard and Venables (1956) in schizophrenics--who have been reported to be extreme reducers for both the Petrie apparatus ... and the AER... [Ibid., p.127.]We might just conclude this note by suggesting that measures of AER might be fundamentally different from the biofeedback measures we have dealt with in the section on biofeedback. It could be that AER measures are measures of central nervous system operations (as Buchsbaum mentions) as distinct from measures of ANS operations. We then find ourselves in the position of saying that all measures of CNS operations are measures of changes in objects of attention, and CNS operations are connected by feedback loops with ANS operations. The attentive model then suggests that what is subjectively experienced of consciousness as subsidiary awareness/object of attention instantiates the same structure as autonomic nervous system operations/central nervous system operations. (For this use of the '/'see p.15.)
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129. M. Vernon, op.cit., p.175.
131. J. Jenkins, "Remember that old theory of memory? Well, forget
it." American Psychologist, Nov. 1974, p. 768.
133. M. Vernon, op.cit., p.196.
134. Ibid., p.195.
135. Ibid., p.163.
136. Ibid., p.161.
137. Ibid., p.162.