Consciousness is slower than you think

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In easy serial choice reaction time tasks (CRT tasks) young adults can very rapidly "correct" nearly all their errors by making the responses that they should have made (error-correcting responses). They are much less accurate at signalling their errors by making the same, deliberate, response to each (error-signalling responses), and they poorly remember errors that they have not signalled or corrected. When instructed to ignore errors they nevertheless involuntarily register them because the response immediately following them (responses following unacknowledged errors) are unusually slow, and they sometimes make involuntary error correction responses. Errors that are neither signalled nor remembered are registered at some level because responses following unacknowledged errors are slowed. Old age does not impair the accuracy of error correction or reduce the proportion of errors that are acknowledged because they are followed by unusually slow responses, but it does reduce the accuracy of error signalling and of recall of errors. Groups of 40 young adults (mean age 20.1 years, SD 1.1) and 40 older adults (mean 71.2 years, SD 5.1) signalled and recalled their errors increasingly accurately as intervals between each response and the next signal were increased from 150 ms to 1000 ms. Error signalling and recall improved as response-signal interval (RSI) durations increased, reaching asymptote at RSIs of 800 ms for the young and 1000 ms for the older adults. Thus processes necessary for conscious and deliberate choice or error-signalling responses and for subsequent recall of errors require more than 150 ms to complete, are slowed by old age, and may be interrupted by onset of new signals occurring earlier than 800 to 1000 ms after completion of an incorrect response.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Age and Cognitive Performance Research Centre, Manchester University, Manchester, UK

Publication date: October 1, 2002

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