Voluntary and involuntary spatial attentions interact differently with awareness

Neuropsychologia. 2011 Jul;49(9):2465-74. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.04.024. Epub 2011 Apr 29.


Although the nature of the relationship between attention and awareness is actively debated, the possibility that different forms of attention might interact differently with awareness has never been directly tested. We examine here whether voluntary and involuntary spatial attentions, two forms of attention that were distinguished by manipulating the predictability of central arrow cues, interact in the same way with visual awareness. Conscious perception was enhanced by both voluntary and involuntary attentions, and to a similar extent, suggesting volition may not be an essential feature for awareness. However, the influence of attention was dependent on the awareness of the target stimulus: Voluntary attention shortened reaction times and improved discrimination accuracy of cued relative to uncued stimuli, but only when the stimuli were consciously perceived. Involuntary attention shortened reaction times for cued relative to uncued target stimuli, but only when the stimuli were not consciously perceived. Our results imply that the nature of the relationship between attention and awareness is not a simple one but depends on the type of attention involved. More specifically, our results suggest that the aware or unaware status of the stimulus could determine whether attentional facilitation is driven by voluntary or involuntary mechanisms, a proposal that goes in the opposite direction of the classical view that attention controls awareness. Because voluntary attentional benefits were observed in aware trials but involuntary attentional benefits were observed in unaware trials only, our results also argue against the idea that attentional effects on conscious and unconscious processing are fundamentally of the same nature.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult