Emotion and automaticity

The idea of automaticity — a notion that is often invoked in the context of affective processing — is a pretty tricky one. The issue is, of course, not limited to affective processing and is encountered in several cognitive domains (for example, word processing). Reading some of cognitive literature it feels that many (all?) of the processes that at some point were deemed automatic were shown to be capacity-limited once the system was pushed hard enough. It is in this context that I particularly like the quote by Moors and De Houwer (2006, p. 321):

“Every process is uncontrolled, efficient, unconscious, and fast, to some degree.”

In other words, an all-or-none view of automaticity is untenable, and a continuous approach is needed (as eloquently outlined by Moors and De Houwer). We thus need frameworks for understanding the continuous nature of cognitive/affective processing, for instance, as suggested originally by Norman and Bobrow (1975) and again by Nakayama and Joseph (1998).

I have briefly outlined related ideas in the context of affective processing in a recent talk at a meeting organized by Gilles Pourtois, Ernst Koster, and colleagues at the University of Ghent, Belgium.


Different processing pathways have different capacity limitations (inverse circle size).


Moors A, De Houwer J (2006) Automaticity: a theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychol Bull 132:297-326.

Nakayama K, Joseph JS (1998) Attention, pattern recognition, and pop-out in visual search. In: The Attentive Brain (Parasuraman R, ed), pp 279-298. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Norman DA, Bobrow DG (1975) On data-limited and resource-limited processes. Cognit Psychol 7:44-64.

Low road vs. multiple roads

The processing of affective information has many attributes that make it special, such as speed, and relative independence from attention and awareness. A key question, therefore, both from basic and applied perspectives is how this happens. An extraordinarily popular account is that a so-called low road from the retina via the superior colliculus and pulvinar conveys information to the amygdala. The general idea is that, because the pathway is entirely subcortical, processing would then be automatic.

This proposal has captured the attention of the research community and has fostered several lines of investigation — what is the role of attention, of awareness, how fast are certain effects, what type of visual information is conveyed (low vs. high spatial frequency), etc. Although these questions are interesting, the subcortical pathway idea is, in my view, largely based on an idea, rather than solidly grounded on empirical data.

So for a while now, Ralph Adolphs and I have been discussing what are serious problems with the notion of automatic subcortical processing of affective information. We have now written up some of these ideas in this Opinion piece in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. We also propose a new scheme, called the multiple-waves model that is intended to be an alternative to the “standard view”. It looks like part (B) of this figure, in contrast to the more traditional view shown in (A).

The proposal also incorporates the fact that the pulvinar is a highly integrative thalamic region, with extensive interconnectivity with much of cortex, as shown below.

The pulvinar works in a way that integrates cortical-subcortical processing.