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Kobe Desender

Unconscious cognitive control

In order to define the borders of unconscious processing, it has been argued that cognitive control is a set of strategic operations exclusively associated with consciousness. The prefrontal cortex is known to play a crucial role in cognitive control, and consequently, most theories state that this brain area cannot be activated by an unconscious task. However, in this project, we adopt a more significant role for unconscious processing, and examine whether cognitive control can also be exerted unconsciously. To address this question, we will study a specific form of cognitive control, namely context effects. A paradigm which circumvents theoretical and methodological problems demonstrated for previous studies will be used. In a first part, it will be tested whether an unconscious context can be created at all. We will examine whether the influence of unconscious ambiguous stimuli on response behavior can be altered depending on the context created by other stimuli presented in the experiment. In a second part, it will be tested whether subjects are also able to use these unconscious contexts to improve responding. We will create one context with mainly congruent and one with mainly incongruent trials, and look whether subjects can adapt to these contexts. In a third part, a functional MRI study will be conducted, to investigate whether, contrary to predictions of current theories, the prefrontal cortex is involved in the adaptation to unconscious contexts.

Promotor: Prof. Eva van den Bussche, KU Leuven
Co-promotor: Dr. Filip van Opstal, ULB