In a nutshell: Novel research shows that we can be conscious of a face’s gender even when paying little or no attention to it.

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We can all relate to the frustration of talking to someone who is deeply engrossed in their phone or favourite show. But does the fact that their attention is focused elsewhere mean they’re not conscious of us?

Whether we can be conscious of things that we’re not paying attention to is a longstanding question in psychological research, and leading scientific theories of consciousness disagree on the answer. It’s an important question with real-world implications – particularly for human activities such as using heavy machinery or driving a car.

Julian Matthews, a PhD student with Brain Function CoE Associate Investigator Naotsugu Tsuchiya, and his colleagues at Monash University have developed a game-changing tool to find the answer.

In the past, researchers have used a method called the dual-task paradigm to study the link between attention and consciousness. Participants focus their attention on either a central or a peripheral task, and their performances are compared to a situation in which they attempt to do both tasks at the same time. The dual-task paradigm shows that we can differentiate some peripheral objects when our attention is focused elsewhere. But does that mean we are consciously seeing those peripheral objects or just differentiating them non-consciously and automatically? Researchers couldn’t be sure. Another drawback of the method is that it can take half a day to properly train participants to use it.

Matthews and his colleagues made major improvements, using special algorithms to reduce training to only 20 minutes and cutting-edge analytical techniques to relate performance to consciousness.

As part of their improved dual-task paradigm, the researchers showed participants hundreds of pictures of faces that had been artificially coloured half green and half red. They found that differentiating gender does not require attention: participants were able to tell the gender of a face, regardless of whether they performed this task alone or at the same time as an attention-consuming task. Surprisingly, attention was required to identify the order of the colours on each face: even though this task might seem simpler, participants could not perform it properly while paying attention to another task.

These results demonstrate that consciousness is possible with little or no attention – at least for some tasks. Perhaps hope is not lost for our phone-obsessed friends after all!

This study is part of a special issue on ‘Perceptual consciousness and cognitive access’ in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Next steps:
The researchers are investigating what features of consciousness are retained in the absence of attention. They are also using the dual-task paradigm to identify impairments of consciousness in clinical groups.

Matthews, J., Schroeder, P., Kaunitz, L., van Boxtel, J.J.A., & Tsuchiya, N. (2018). Conscious access in the near absence of attention: critical extensions on the dual-task paradigm. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 20170352. doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0352.

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