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Working Memory Prioritizes Non-conscious Processing of Threatening Faces
Author: Dr.Yi Jiang's research group      Update time: 2016/12/08
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Non-conscious visual processing of emotional signals, which is shown to exert influences over our conscious experience and behavior, has typically been assumed to be automatic and outside conscious control.

A research team led by Dr. Yi Jiang from the State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Science, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences has recently demonstrated that this so-called “automatic” process is nonetheless malleable and can be significantly modulated by our current state of mind and emotion (i.e., what we are holding in consciousness). Using the working memory (WM) task combined with the continuous flash suppression (CFS) technique, the researchers found that the invisible faces matching the contents of WM could enjoy a preferential status to gain access into awareness, with the effect highly tuned to threatening signals (i.e., fear and anger) and different from that of bottom-up repetition priming.

These results provide direct evidence that WM content can act as a top-down mechanism to enhance the non-conscious processing of high-level visual information (i.e., emotional signals). The findings also challenge the long-held notion of complete automaticity of non-consciously triggered emotional processes by revealing the flexibility and adaptability of the emotional system under non-conscious visual processing, thereby bridging the gap between the conscious and non-conscious mind.

Figure 1. Sample trial sequence in Experiments 1, 2, and 3.
Figure 2. Results from Experiments 1 through 4.

This research was supported by grants from the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (No. XDB02010003), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 31525011, 31671137, and 31100733), and the Youth Innovation Promotion Association of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (No. 2014073).

This study has been published in Psychological Science.


Liu, D., Wang, L.*, Wang, Y., & Jiang, Y.* (2016). Conscious access to suppressed threatening information is modulated by working memory. Psychological Science, 27(11), 1419-1427.



Yi Jiang

Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences


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