The Doors of Perception: A Cognitive Model

The latent inhibition (LI) paradigm was originally developed over 40 years ago (Lubow & Moore, 1959) to describe the capacity to filter out extraneous stimuli from conscious awareness. More simply, LI describes that common tendency to pay less attention to something the more we are exposed and become familiar to it. A review of the empirical studies of human subjects concluded the use of masking tasks is generally needed to produce positive results in adults. First adopted by Schnur and Ksir (1969), the masking task engages participants in activities which require the majority of their attention while, concurrently, presenting the to-be-associated stimuli in a subtle or indirect manner.

This inhibitory mechanism which controls the breadth of our awareness of the environment can be conceptualized as a sort of perceptual gate, barring the “irrelevant” stimuli from conscious attention while allowing the most immediate and novel of sensory data through, to be perceived.

A “Failure” To Ignore One’s Surroundings?

While the reduction of LI capacity had previously been linked to dysfunction in attentional processes, manifesting as symptoms of schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, and psychosis, more recent research has suggested the hypersensitive state of lowered LI may, in fact, be associated with higher creative achievement and novel thought associations (Eysenck, 1995). It has been proposed that the cognitive processes employed by individuals with this heightened creative capacity are both quantitatively and qualitiatively different from those of the typical person (Simonton, 1999).

In the meta-analysis of her two studies of youthful subjects with high IQ, Carson (2003) found a highly significant relationship between reduced LI and creative achievement – with a nearly universal reduction of LI in the eminent creative achievers group.

HYPERSENSITIVITY + HIGH IQ = EMINENT CREATIVE ACHIEVEMENT

“The highly creative individual may be privileged to access a greater inventory of unfiltered stimuli during early processing, thereby increasing the odds of original recombinant ideation. Thus, a deficit that is generally associated with pathology may well impart a creative advantage in the presence of other cognitive strengths, such as high IQ” (Carson, 2003, pg. 505).

Attention: Where Latent Inhibition and Semantic Activation Meet

A connectionist model bridging latent inhibition to semantic priming could be conceptually mediated by the attentional processes utilized by both paradigms. Changes in attentional processes have played a central role in understanding the cognitive underpinnings of schizophrenia since the time of Kraepelin and Bleuler. Attention has been used as an explanatory aid by Lubow (1995), who described it as an area ripe for LI research. Likewise, in his discussion of the hyper-priming state, Wentura (2008) suggests a link between disinhibited spreading of semantic activation and lowered LI. I propose this link may lie in the measure of covert attention. This may be framed as the hypothesis that a lowered LI score will result from the hypersensitive perceptual state of psilocybin, whose cognitive correlate has been shown as increased activation of indirect semantic associations by Spitzer (1996).

The word “priming” itself suggests fluid being carried via some channel or pipe, a fitting metaphor for semantic activation spreading from one node to another. Yet, in many ways, this metaphor serving to conceptualize semantic priming remains underdeveloped in that it gives no indication of what that “fluid” being primed is, its variations in pressure, or where it is being primed from. Once attention is introduced as an explanatory aid in an understanding of latent inhibition and semantic activation, the common ground shared by both models becomes highlighted and possible relationships can be drawn between them.

The Semantic Network: Consciousness Expansion as Spreading Activation

The semantic network model, in its varied forms, serves as a metaphorical framework by which all we know of the world can be represented as a net, or a branched hierarchy of interrelated semantic concepts, each shown as a node. These conceptual nodes are activated into associative strands during the formation of a thought, and this activation leads to the semantic priming of those associated nodes. Primed nodes are, then, recognized and accessed more readily in subsequent semantic tasks.

The administration of psilocybin, an agent known to affect the 5-HT system, induces a state of semantic hyper-priming in human subjects (Spitzer, 1996). This increased availability to typically-unavailable conceptual associations may help explain the reported subjective effects of “consciousness expansion” and “enhanced creativity” classically described by psilocybin users.

One conceptualization which may serve as an explanatory aid for the indirect priming effect of psilocybin on the semantic network is a fluent model of nodal branching. In other words, much like rivers which branch and divide, the spreading of activation can also be represented in terms of fluid flow through channels. In this view, psilocybin “floods” our semantic network, spreading outwards across “dry” conceptual branches, priming them with attention. Therein, the limits of expression of these expanded semantic associations may be defined by the limited capacity of an individual’s attention span.

States of hyper-sensitivity and hyper-priming can be seen resulting from both thought disordered (TD) schizophrenia and from psilocybin use. For this reason, theoretical models utilized in the investigation of perceptual or semantic processing abnormalities in schizotypy are also valuable tools to understand the influence of psychedelics, like psilocybin, on those same processes. The latent inhibition (LI) and semantic priming paradigms may be interrelated by the faculty of attention, thereby creating a framework for the cognitive processes underlying non-ordinary states of consciousness.

Carson, S. H., Peterson, J. B., & Higgins, D. M. (2003) Decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 85, 499-506.

Eysenck, H.J. (1995). Creativity as a product of intelligence and personality. In D. Saklofske & M. Zeidner (Eds.), International Handbook of Personality and Intelligence: Perspectives on Individual Differences (pp. 231-247). New York: Plenum Press.

Lubow, R. E., & Moore, A. U. (1959). Latent inhibition: The effect of nonreinforced pre-exposure to the conditional stimulus. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. 52, 415-419.

Lubow, R. E. (1989). Latent Inhibition and Conditioned Attention Theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Lubow, R. E., & Gewirtz, J. C. (1995). Latent inhibition in humans: Data, theory, and implications for schizophrenia. Psychological Bulletin. 117, 87-103.

Schnur, P., & Ksir, C. (1969). Latent inhibition in human eyelid conditioning. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 80, 388-389.

Spitzer, M., Thimm, M., Hermle, L., Holzmann, P., Kovar, K., Heimann, H., Gouzoulis-Mayfrank, E., Kischa, U., Schneider, F. (1996). Increased activation of indirect semantic associations under psilocybin. Biological Psychiatry. 39, 1055-1057.

Wentura, D., Moritz, S., & Frings, C. (2008). Further evidence for “hyper-priming” in thought-disordered schizophrenic patients using repeated masked category priming. Schizophrenia Research. 102, 69-75.

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