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Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we tested whether unconscious information can influence the cognitive control system in the human prefrontal cortex. Volunteers had to prepare to perform either a phonological judgment or a semantic judgment on an upcoming word, based on the instruction given at the beginning of each trial. However, in some trials they were visually primed to prepare for the alternative (i.e., "wrong") task, and this impaired their performance. This priming effect is taken to depend on unconscious processes because the effect was present even when the volunteers could only discriminate the identity of the primes at chance level. Furthermore, the effect was stronger when the visibility of the prime was near zero than when the visibility of the prime was significantly higher. When volunteers were unconsciously primed to perform the alternative task, there was also decreased neural activity in the brain areas relevant to the instructed task and increased neural activity in the brain areas relevant to the alternative task, which shows that the volunteers were actually engaged in the wrong task, instead of simply being distracted. Activity in the mid-dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was also found to be associated with this unconscious priming effect. These results suggest that the cognitive control system in the prefrontal cortex is not exclusively driven by conscious information, as has been believed previously.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurosci

Publication Date





5805 - 5811


Brain Mapping, Cognition, Humans, Prefrontal Cortex, Psychomotor Performance, Unconscious (Psychology)