The n-back as a dual-task: P300 morphology under divided attention

Psychophysiology. 2001 Nov;38(6):998-1003. doi: 10.1111/1469-8986.3860998.


The n-back task was hypothesized to be a dual task, permitting the imposition of parametrically increasing attentional and working memory demands, while keeping constant the demands of an embedded matching subtask. Visual targets were presented for 200 ms every 2.2 s at pseudorandomly varying positions on a computer screen. Participants were required to remember the most recent 0, 1, 2, or 3 positions and responded with a choice button push to whether the current target position matched the position presented n items previously. P300 peak latency was constant across n-back tasks, reflecting constant perceptual and cognitive demands of the matching subtask. P300 peak amplitude decreased with increasing memory load, reflecting reallocation of attention and processing capacity away from the matching subtask to working memory activity. These data support a dual-task nature of the n-back, which should be considered when employing this paradigm.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Event-Related Potentials, P300 / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology