When the stored representation of the meaning of a stimulus is accessed through the processing of a sensory input it is maintained in an activated state for a certain amount of time that allows for further processing. This semantic activation is generally accompanied by conscious identification, which can be demonstrated by the ability of a person to perform discriminations on the basis of the meaning of the stimulus. The idea that a sensory input can give rise to semantic activation without concomitant conscious identification was the central thesis of the controversial research in subliminal perception. Recently, new claims for the existence of such phenomena have arisen from studies in dichotic listening, parafoveal vision, and visual pattern masking. Because of the fundamental role played by these types of experiments in cognitive psychology, the new assertions have raised widespread interest.
The purpose of this paper is to show that this enthusiasm may be premature. Analysis of the three new lines of evidence for semantic activation without conscious identification leads to the following conclusions. (1) Dichotic listening cannot provide the conditions needed to demonstrate the phenomenon. These conditions are better fulfilled in parafoveal vision and are realized ideally in pattern masking. (2) Evidence for the phenomenon is very scanty for parafoveal vision, but several tentative demonstrations have been reported for pattern masking. It can be shown, however, that none of these studies has included the requisite controls to ensure that semantic activation was not accompanied by conscious identification of the stimulus at the time of presentation. (3) On the basis of current evidence it is most likely that these stimuli were indeed consciously identified.
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