Detecting conscious awareness from involuntary autonomic responses

Consciousness and Cognition 20 (3):936-942 (2011)
Abstract
Can conscious awareness be ascertained from physiological responses alone? We evaluate a novel learning-based procedure permitting detection of conscious awareness without reliance on language comprehension or behavioural responses. The method exploits a situation whereby only consciously detected violations of an expectation alter skin conductance responses . Thirty participants listened to sequences of piano notes that, without their being told, predicted a pleasant fanfare or an aversive noise according to an abstract rule. Stimuli were presented without distraction , or while distracted by a visual task to remove awareness of the rule . A test phase included occasional violations of the rule. Only participants attending the sounds reported awareness of violations and only they showed significantly greater SCR for noise occurring in violation, vs. accordance, with the rule. Our results establish theoretically significant dissociations between conscious and unconscious processing and furnish new opportunities for clinical assessment of residual consciousness in patient populations
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