The complexity of unconscious processing

An individual research project in the context of the larger research project The depth and complexity of unconscious processing hosted by Frontiers in Neuroscience

Luis M. Augusto


About this individual project

Since the so-called cognitive revolution in the mid 1960s, unconscious processing has been a hot topic. In spite of all this heat, progress has been slow and there are still many questions to answer. In particular, we still do not know how complex the stimuli can be that can be processed unconsciously and how this processing takes place. I plan to approach this question from a computational perspective, which will provide a rigorous definition of complexity, and apply it to unconscious language processing.

What is the context of this research?

Much of our cognitive activity is believed to be unconscious, but we still do not know much about this mode or kind of cognitive processing. Research into this might shed light on many psychological phenomena that have puzzled humans for centuries (e.g., hypnosis), including clinical conditions (e.g., formal thought disorder). In order to be able to establish scientific principles for this kind or mode of cognition we need to carry out research into both the depth and complexity of the so-called unconscious mind. This individual project focuses on the complexity of unconscious processing.

What is the significance of this individual project?

Although we know today a lot more about human cognition than we did when cognitive psychology emerged in the mid 1960s, we still do not grasp satisfactorily the nature of human cognition. We believe, and have strong experimental evidence, that although a large part of our cognitive activity is inaccessible to ourselves, information from the environment and from the self is being processed in an unconscious manner successfully, i.e. in a way that guarantees our well-being and survival. The evidence we already have stems from experimental psychology, but it needs to be put into relation with rigorous measures of information processing. These can ideally be adapted or adopted from computer science, as human cognition has many parallels with computation, as A. Turing famously hypothesized.

What are the goals of this project?

The main goal of the project is to learn more about ideally to establish a rigorous measure of the complexity of unconscious information processing, namely by taking language as a prototypically complex system and analyzing its processing from a computational viewpoint. This is expected to shed light on questions such as

        Are complex stimuli decomposed into their constituent parts or are they processed as single, undecomposed, stimuli?

        How if so are analyzed features of stimuli transferred to other percepts?

        What are the implications of the above for, say, the processing of marketing stimuli from their early perception to buy/not-buy decision making?

I plan to review the available literature on unconscious processing from a "black-box" perspective, in order to sketch a computational model of the complexity of human unconscious processing of information.


I am trying to find the minimum funding required to carry out daily research from now on and until September. This entails at least 4 hours of work per day during this period, and I may be required to pay publication fees, as Frontiers is an open-access journal and charges a fee to keep the articles freely accessible online. These four hours of research work per day must be subtracted from the hours I would be doing paid work such as preparing and giving classes or lectures.

Project Timeline

In March I will be required to provide an abstract of the paper to be completed in the project, and the paper must be submitted for peer review by mid September 2020.

March 06, 2020 Submit abstract

September 11, 2020 Submit completed manuscript


My background

I have academic training, and have published, in both cognitive science (topics: knowledge, cognition, and representations) and computer science (topics: formal languages & automata theory, computational intelligence). (See details)


My previous work into unconscious processing (a selection):

        Augusto, L. M. (2018). Transitions versus dissociations: A paradigm shift in unconscious cognition. Axiomathes, 28, 269-291. DOI: 10.1007/s10516-017-9366-y

        Augusto, L. M. (2016). Lost in dissociation: The main paradigms in unconscious cognition. Consciousness and Cognition, 42, 293-310. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.04.004

        Augusto, L. M. (2014). Unconscious representations 2: Towards an integrated cognitive architecture. Axiomathes, 24, 19-43. DOI: 10.1007/s10516-012-9207-y

        Augusto, L. M. (2013). Unconscious representations 1: Belying the traditional model of human cognition. Axiomathes, 23, 645-663. DOI: 10.1007/s10516-012-9206-z

        Augusto, L. M: (2013). Freud, Jung, Lacan: Sobre o inconsciente. [Freud, Jung, Lacan: On the Unconscious. In Portuguese] Porto: University of Porto (U.Porto editorial). 340 p.

        Augusto, L. M. (2010). Unconscious knowledge: A survey. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 6, 116-141. DOI: 10.2478/v10053-008-0081-5;