Unconscious stimuli have a pervasive effect on our brain function and behavior

This 2015 Swedish human study, performed at the institution that awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, found:

“Pain responses can be shaped by learning that takes place outside conscious awareness.”

Images of neutral male faces were used as conditioning stimuli which the subjects were trained to associate with levels of pain.

The concluding sentence of the study:

“Our results demonstrate that conscious awareness of conditioned stimuli is not required during either acquisition or activation of conditioned analgesic and hyperalgesic responses, and that low levels of the brain’s hierarchical organization are susceptible for learning that affects higher-order cognitive processes.”

From the study’s abstract:

“Our results support the notion that nonconscious stimuli have a pervasive effect on human brain function and behavior and may affect learning of complex cognitive processes such as psychologically mediated analgesic and hyperalgesic responses.”


Principles of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy related to this study’s findings are:

  • Experiences associated with pain can be remembered below our conscious awareness.
  • Unconscious memories associated with pain, when activated, have varying forms of expression as they pass up through our levels of consciousness.
  • These memories, when activated, have effects on our feelings, thinking, health, brain functioning, and behavior that are usually below our conscious awareness.

I’ll use one of Dr. Janov’s 2011 blog posts, On Being Alone, to show an example of how the study’s findings of:

  • “Conscious awareness of conditioned stimuli is not required during either acquisition or activation of conditioned..responses” and
  • “Nonconscious stimuli have a pervasive effect on human brain function and behavior”

are seen through the lens of Primal Therapy:

Unconscious memories associated with the pain of being left alone may be stored, especially in the developing brain, in our lower brain areas below conscious awareness: “Pain of being left alone a lot in childhood and infancy, added to the ultimate aloneness right after birth when no one was there for the newborn. That imprints a primal terror where a naïve, innocent and vulnerable baby has no one to lean on, to be held by, to snuggle up to, to be comforted. To be loved.”
As we develop, the cumulative memories associated with the pain of being left alone, when activated, may affect our feelings, thoughts, and behavior: “And that also has multiple meanings: no one wants me; there is no one there for me: no one wants to be with me; I have no love and no one who cares..one races to phone others so as not to feel alone..One runs from the feeling and struggles mightily not to be alone. Or, depending on earlier events one stays alone out of that same feeling. These are by and large the depressives.”
Although memories associated with the pain of being left alone may be formed in our early lives, they remain decades later, and can be activated below our conscious awareness: When something in the present occurs which is similar to an old feeling..“I am all alone and no one wants me,” the old feelings are triggered off..and the whole feeling rises toward conscious/awareness where it must be combated. Either the person wallows in the feeling and is overwhelmed by it even when she doesn’t even know what “it” is. Or the compounded feeling drives the act-out, forcing the person into some kind of social contact.

A PNAS commentary on the study stated:

“Pain, analgesia, and hyperalgesia represent higher-order cognitive functions.”

and attempted to draw conclusions from this reasoning.

The commentator was incorrect regarding pain. I didn’t see where this study showed or even postulated that pain was always a higher-order cognitive function. In fact, the researchers cited a sea slug study and stated:

“It would not be surprising if vestiges of simpler nonconscious processes would also be operative under some conditions.”

Maybe it would have provided clarifications if the researchers specifically defined “low” and “higher” used throughout the study in statements such as the closing sentence:

“Low levels of the brain’s hierarchical organization are susceptible for learning that affects higher-order cognitive processes.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/25/7863.full “Classical conditioning of analgesic and hyperalgesic pain responses without conscious awareness”

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