Automatic Versus Conscious Processing
As noted previously, mental processes exist that appear to occur in the absence of attentional focus and thus outside conscious awareness; these processes are frequently described as being automatic (Logan and Klapp, 1991; Posner and Snyder, 1975; Shiffrin and Schneider, 1977). It was further noted that complex mental processes, such as driving to work, initially require con-siderable attentional focus but may eventually become automatic as a result of overlearning (Craighead et al., 1994). Automatic cognitive processes often facilitate adaptive functioning, inas-much as they permit the individual to engage in numerous cogni-tive operations concurrently (i.e., parallel processing). However, it has also been suggested that some automatic thoughts, such as appraisals, may turn out to be aberrant or distorted (Beck and Emery, 1985), and because such thoughts are not subjected to the scrutiny that accompanies conscious attentional focus, aberrant automatic thoughts are unlikely, under most circumstances, to be corrected. We know that schema-based inferences fill in the gaps in memory of prior events so that humans reconstruct that which they cannot completely recall. Thus, what is recalled is integrated in memory with that which is reconstructed and the relevant schema is thereby modified, many times in a self-de-feating or negativistic manner by patients. Although this is an efficient mechanism that facilitates functioning in our complex world, it can lead to schematic errors of which the individual may not have full awareness – she or he only is aware of the outcome and not the process. One of the fundamental goals of cognitive– behavioral therapy is the development of the understanding of both the content and functioning of such automatic processes.
This model of automatic cognitive processes has been im-plicated in the etiology and maintenance of numerous forms of psychopathology, most prominently GAD (Wolpe, 1958; Barlow, 1988) and MDD (Beck, 1976; Beck et al., 1979). For example, the patient with GAD is hypothesized to engage in automatic overes-timation of potential threat in a variety of environmental contexts, many of them benign (Beck and Emery, 1985). This automatic misappraisal is believed to be influenced, in large measure, by the operation of faulty schemata, cognitive structures that repre-sent the preprocessed distillation of various threat-related experi-ences stored in long-term memory. Likewise, depressed patients have been observed to engage frequently in a variety of negativ-istic automatic thoughts, presumably influenced by the operation of schemata concerning themes of rejection and failure.