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Transitions Versus Dissociations: A Paradigm Shift in Unconscious Cognition


Since Freud and his co-author Breuer spoke of dissociation in 1895, a scientific paradigm was painstakingly established in the field of unconscious cognition. This is the dissociation paradigm. However, recent critical analysis of the many and various reported dissociations reveals their blurred, or unveridical, character. Moreover, we remain ignorant with respect to the ways cognitive phenomena transition from consciousness to an unconscious mode (or the reverse). This hinders us from filling in the puzzle of the unified mind. We conclude that we have reached a Kuhnian crisis in the field of unconscious cognition, and we predict that new models, incorporating partly the relevant findings of the dissociation paradigm—but also of dynamic psychology—, will soon be established. We further predict that some of these models will be largely based on the pairs representation–process and analog–digital.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    E.g., Hume (1739/1978, Book I, Part IV, 3): “All [our particular perceptions] are different, and distinguishable, and separable from each other, and may be separately considered, and may exist separately, and have no need of anything to support their existence. After what manner, therefore, do they belong to self; and how are they connected with it?” Other philosophers who “puzzled” over this before it became a problem also for psychology were Descartes and Leibniz.

  2. 2.

    That we know of, we are the first to talk explicitly of the dissociation paradigm in a Kuhnian sense. Holender and Duscherer (2004) write about a “paradigm shift” in unconscious perception, but do not explicitly relate this expression to Kuhn’s work.

  3. 3.

    These are the intentionality, metaknowledge, and reportability criteria, respectively (Augusto 2016). See below for an elaboration.

  4. 4.

    See below for jargon and details on blindsight.

  5. 5.

    One reason for this is that in perceptual research involving unconscious perception the focus seems to be on determining the scope and limits of unconscious perceptive processing (see, e.g., Lin and He 2009).

  6. 6.

    In the strictest sense, a cognitive experience is information processing of some kind (e.g., visual, olfactory, reasoning, volitional). This processing can be conscious and/or unconscious for different reasons that range from the neurophysiological to the psycho-dynamic perspectives. We elaborate on this in Sects. 4.3.1 and 4.3.3 below, but anticipate it now because we shall be speaking of conscious and unconscious experiences of some kind. Let us use visual experience, because we shall be focusing on it below. We can deduce that a subject undergoes an unconscious visual experience when, presented a visual stimulus, the subject cannot report directly on the stimulus, they have no conscious intention of perceiving the stimulus, and they can even answer negatively if asked if they saw the stimulus, but they “pass” indirect tests on the stimulus and/or they exhibit neurophysiological indicators suggesting that the stimulus—or properties thereof—was indeed perceived (see “Main specific criteria” in Table 1).

  7. 7.

    Although we call (3) “the computational framework” of the dissociation paradigm, surprisingly little work of a truly computational nature has actually been done; some exceptions are, for instance, Boyer et al. (2005), Cleeremans and Dienes (2008), Gureckis and Love (2005), Schneider and Chein (2003), Timmermans and Cleeremans (2001).

  8. 8.

    Which does not include the larger literature on studies in anesthesia, given that, in these, cognitive aspects are more often than not ignored in the transition from unconsciousness to awareness or responsiveness.

  9. 9.

    As a matter of fact, the first steps away from dissociation were actually taken by Freud in his reformulation of the first theory of the unconscious (in Freud 1915): In Freud (1923), the conscious is a part of the unconscious, namely a component of this that has been modified by contact with reality. More specifically, in Freud’s (1923) second model of the mind, the id is essentially conscious, the super-ego is partly conscious, and the ego is partly unconscious, so there is no strict dissociation conscious versus unconscious.

  10. 10.

    Some call this view Computationalism, but we will not linger—or quibble—on this.

  11. 11.

    Maybe here human and artificial cognition do part.

  12. 12.

    This is a tentative example, as we are not sure about the author's position. Below in this paragraph we cite Gabbay and Woods (2003) hesitatingly also for the same reason.

  13. 13.

    Actually, this is hardly surprising, given Freud’s originally neurological basis for a model of the conscious–unconscious mind (see Freud 1895).

  14. 14.

    In our view, the remaining difference is as follows: dynamic factors or dimensions require a cognitive basis. This in the belief that three levels are required for an analysis of human mind and behavior: neural, cognitive, and mental, hierarchically from lowest to highest, or from micro- to macro-level, respectively.

  15. 15.

    We quote from Neisser (1967, pp. 4–5): “[A]lthough cognitive psychology is concerned with all human activity rather than some fraction of it, the concern is from a particular point of view. Other viewpoints are equally legitimate and necessary. Dynamic psychology, which begins with motives rather than with sensory input, is a case in point. Instead of asking how a man’s action and experiences result from what he saw, remembered, or believed, the dynamic psychologist asks how they follow from the subject’s goals, needs, or instincts. Both questions can be asked about any activity, whether it be normal or abnormal, spontaneous or induced, overt or covert, waking or dreaming. Asked why I did a certain thing, I may answer in dynamic terms, “Because I wanted…,” or, from the cognitive point of view, “Because it seemed to me…” (…) Many cognitive phenomena are incomprehensible unless one takes some account of what the subject is trying to do.”.


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Correspondence to Luis M. Augusto.

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Augusto, L.M. Transitions Versus Dissociations: A Paradigm Shift in Unconscious Cognition. Axiomathes 28, 269–291 (2018).

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  • Conscious and unconscious cognition
  • Scientific paradigm
  • Dissociations
  • Transitions
  • Representations–processes
  • Analog–digital
  • Dynamic aspects