Inhibitory Control and the Regulation of Awareness

Sustaining focused attention on an idea or memory requires the ability to prevent potentially distracting representations from entering awareness. In this talk, I will argue that the capacity to control the focus of conscious awareness is subserved in part by executive control processes widely studied in cognitive neuroscience that are recruited to suppress distracting mental representations. In support of this, I will review a program of research that shows that inhibitory processes are recruited (a) during long-term memory retrieval to overcome distraction from competing mental representations, (b) when attention must be sustained on a single idea over a long time, in the interests of some delayed cognitive task, and (c) when the episodic retrieval process itself is to be intentionally terminated in order to prevent an unwanted memory from entering awareness. In each case, the act of rejecting the unwanted contents from awareness causes a deficit in the later ability to recall the information when it is desired. Based on these findings, it is argued that the capacity to regulate the focus of consciousness may depend in part on inhibitory control mechanisms functionally similar to those used to override prepotent motor responses.

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