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Is human information processing conscious?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 May 2011

Max Velmans
Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths' College, University of London, London SE14 6NW, England, Electronic mail:


Investigations of the function of consciousness in human information processing have focused mainly on two questions: (1) Where does consciousness enter into the information processing sequence, and (2) how does conscious processing differ from preconscious and unconscious processing? Input analysis is thought to be initially “preconscious” and “pre-attentive” - fast, involuntary, and automatic. This is followed by “conscious,” “focal-attentive” analysis, which is relatively slow, voluntary, and flexible. It is thought that simple, familiar stimuli can be identified preconsciously, but conscious processing is needed to identify complex, novel stimuli. Conscious processing has also been thought to be necessary for choice, learning and memory, and the organization of complex, novel responses, particularly those requiring planning, reflection, or creativity.

The present target article reviews evidence that consciousness performs none of these functions. Consciousness nearly always results from focal-attentive processing (as a form of output) but does not itself enter into this or any other form of human information processing. This suggests that the term “conscious process” needs reexamination. Consciousness appears to be necessary in a variety of tasks because they require focal-attentive processing; if consciousness is absent, focal-attentive processing is absent. From a first-person perspective, however, conscious states are causally effective. First-person accounts are complementary to third-person accounts. Although they can be translated into third-person accounts, they cannot be reduced to them.

Target Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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