Dissociable brain mechanisms underlying the conscious and unconscious control of behavior

Simon Van Gaal*, Victor A F Lamme, Johannes J. Fahrenfort, K. Richard Ridderinkhof

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Cognitive control allows humans to overrule and inhibit habitual responses to optimize performance in challenging situations. Contradicting traditional views, recent studies suggest that cognitive control processes can be initiated unconsciously. To further capture the relation between consciousness and cognitive control, we studied the dynamics of inhibitory control processes when triggered consciously versus unconsciously in a modified version of the stop task. Attempts to inhibit an imminent response were often successful after unmasked (visible) stop signals. Masked (invisible) stop signals rarely succeeded in instigating overt inhibition but did trigger slowing down of response times. Masked stop signals elicited a sequence of distinct ERP components that were also observed on unmasked stop signals. The N2 component correlated with the efficiency of inhibitory control when elicited by unmasked stop signals and with the magnitude of slowdown when elicited by masked stop signals. Thus, the N2 likely reflects the initiation of inhibitory control, irrespective of conscious awareness. The P3 component was much reduced in amplitude and duration on masked versus unmasked stop trials. These patterns of differences and similarities between conscious and unconscious cognitive control processes are discussed in a framework that differentiates between feedforward and feedback connections in yielding conscious experience.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-105
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011


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