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Biology 202
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Dual States of Conscioiusness

Susan Lee

Poised at the piano the performer takes several deep breaths and recounts the first five measures of the piece she is about to perform. Once her fingers press firmly upon the keys, producing the first melodic chord all analytical thoughts of the notes once envisioned fly out of her head. The performance has been turned over to behavioral instincts. Her fingers execute each note by routine and she is unaware of her fingers striking specific keys. However soon the performer realizes that her thoughts have begun to wander and as she becomes aware of the piano keys she struggles to envision the notes of the score only to find that the routine is lost.

Why would this sudden awareness of the keys influence the performer in such a manner that the routine becomes interrupted? What the previous scenario seems to suggest is that the performer was playing the piece in a state lacking full awareness of her actions. It was only when she became aware of what she was doing that the continuum was interrupted. This suggests that the mind has the ability to process information in a dual manner- consciously and unconsciously. Of course this having been stated one must ask whether the brain is actually capable of receiving inputs during an unconscious state.

One way of testing whether inputs are unconsciously received involves determining whether unconscious stimulus affects conscious reactions. In 1980 Kunst-Wilson and Zajonc tested subjects by presenting them with an image for 1-msec and then having them perform tests in which the subjects would have to identify the image (1). The presented images were considered as an unconscious stimulus because the subjects did not report seeing anything. After presentation of the images the subjects were asked to perform two different tasks, one involving recognition and the other involving preference. The recognition test involved the test takers choosing from a pair of objects, one being the object previously shown and the other a new object. This testing resulted in 50% of the test subjects obtaining the right answer. However, when the subjects were asked to choose between the two images the one that they preferred, 60% of the answers were correct. From this data Kunst-Wilson and Zajonc concluded that the higher success in identification of the image when left to preference suggested that unconscious input does in fact exist and is somewhat influential in outputs.

If the brain is capable of both unconscious and conscious input then the outputs must be affected in different manners. This has been shown in studies carried out by Murphy and Zajonc in 1993 (1). They presented subjects with Chinese ideograms and asked the subjects to describe whether the ideogram depicted a good or bad concept ;but, preceding these ideograms images of faces depicting various moods such as sadness or happiness were presented. It was found that when the faces were presented in an unconscious manner ( presentation of the faces occurred for very brief amounts of time) the descriptions corresponded to the image of the face. However, when subjects were consciously aware of the facial images their description of the ideogram was slightly or not at all influenced by the images. Although the experimenters concluded that the conscious input of faces did not influence the subjectsí descriptions one must also consider whether the very act of telling the subjects to ignore the faces would cause them to describe the ideograms in opposition to what they saw.

So how does all of this tie in to the scenario of the pianist? By considering first of all whether unconscious inputs can exist one sees that it is quite possible for the pianist to perform in a manner that separates the performance from conscious effort. This was seen in the influence that the unconsciously shown images had in a subjectís preference of a particular object. By asking the subject to choose the image that they preferred they, in a sense, were performing without conscious effort. There seems to be quite a large leap that is taken from acknowledging that unconscious inputs occur and correlating that to an unconscious output. However one must consider that the act of behavior can occur in a closed circuit. What is unconsciously inputted into a system can in turn affect the output of the system; this is evident in the both the experiments of Kunst-Wilson and Zajonc (1980) and that of Murphy and Zajonc (1993). In both experiments the unconscious input influenced the output. Now seeing that the pianist could perform in a somewhat unconscious state, what is it about the interjection of conscious thought that caused the interruption of the performance?

This lack of ability to perform during conscious thought poses a problem. Previous interpretations of conscious thought suggests that when consciousness is missing subjects can not use unconscious inputs to guide their actions. This is seen in experimentation with patients who have suffered damage to the primary visual cortex(2). Damage to this area produces blind spots in the personís field of vision. Under test conditions subjects are unable to identify a stimulus placed in their blind field; however, when asked to guess about features of the stimulus some were able to correctly answer. Ultimately though objects placed in the blindfield can not serve a functional role to the subject. For instance a thirsty subject will not reach for a glass of water placed in its blind field (2). These results suggest that conscious awareness should enhance performance i.e. when the pianist became consciously aware of playing the piano this should have aided in her performance rather than causing a lapse in memory.

This appears to lead us back to square one with no explanation for the piano playing scenario. This data also contradicts the results of the experiments mentioned earlier. In the previously mentioned experiment unconscious inputs affected the conscious judgements of the subjects whereas in the latter mentioned experiment the subjects were unable to make use of what was available to them in their unconscious field. However it should also be noted that the scenarios differed between the experiments. In expecting the blind field subject to reach for a glass of water one would have to speculate that objects placed in the blind field would in fact register as an unconscious input.

Overall the web research provided no definitive answer as to why the piano performance would be interrupted by the sudden awareness of the pianist of the piano and what was being performed. However, several concepts of interest were touched upon and it appears that with continuing research a link will be found between states of consciousness and the effects they have on generating outputs.

WWW Sources

1)Unconscious perception.,

2)On a confusion about a function of conciousness,




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