Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Automatic processes are usually thought to occur independently of any cognitive resources. This traditional view has been recently challenged by showing that temporal attention to a target stimulus is a prerequisite for “automatic” response priming. The event-related potential (ERP) study reported here extends this research by pursuing a somewhat different approach. In two experiments, it was investigated whether masked semantic priming effects can be modulated by temporal attention to the prime using a cueing procedure. We hypothesized that masked priming is amplified when attention is directed to the stimulus stream in the time window of masked prime presentation, even in the absence of any prime awareness. ERPs were recorded while subjects performed a primed lexical decision task. Target words were preceded by semantically related or unrelated masked prime words, which were not consciously identified. A cue stimulus prompted subjects to direct their attention to the stimulus stream either shortly before the masked prime (short cue interval) or a long time interval before. Priming affected the amplitude of the N400 ERP component, an electrophysiological index of semantic processing. Unrelated prime–target pairs elicited a larger N400 than related pairs (N400 priming effect). Most importantly, this masked N400 priming effect was strongest when the cue interval and the stimulus onset asynchronies were short. The present results show that temporal attention to the prime is a prerequisite for obtaining masked N400 priming effects. They also demonstrate that unconscious automatic processes are susceptible to attentional modulation.