Yes It Can: On the Functional Abilities of the Human Unconscious

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Understanding the division of labor between conscious processes and unconscious ones is central to our understanding of the human mind. This article proposes a simple "Yes It Can" (or YIC) principle: It argues that unconscious processes can perform the same fundamental, high-level functions that conscious processes can perform. The author presents considerations of evolutionary pressures and of the availability of mental resources that render YIC a reasonable hypothesis. Evidence is then reviewed from various subfields of the cognitive sciences, which shows that functions that were traditionally thought of as requiring consciousness can occur nonconsciously. On the basis of these data and arguments, it is proposed that an answer to the question "What is it that consciousness does?" would not be in the form of "Consciousness is necessary for F," where F is a fundamental, high-level cognitive function. In Marr's (1982) terms, the argument is that computationally conscious and unconscious processes are very similar. Yet differences in how these processes kick in and in the ways in which they play out (Marr's algorithmic-representational level) are likely to have interesting implications for human cognition, motivation, and emotion.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)195-207
Number of pages13
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2013


  • consciousness
  • decision making
  • executive functions
  • subliminal priming
  • unconscious


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