Contextual task difficulty modulates stimulus discrimination: electrophysiological evidence for interaction between sensory and executive processes

Psychophysiology. 2012 Oct;49(10):1384-93. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01455.x. Epub 2012 Aug 20.


The occipital-temporal N1 component of the event-related potential (ERP) has previously been shown to index a stimulus discrimination process. However, the N1 has not consistently been shown to be sensitive to the difficulty of stimulus discrimination. Here, we manipulated the difficulty of stimulus discrimination by modulating the similarity between serially presented targets and nontargets. The same target stimulus was employed in both easy and difficult discrimination contexts, and these physically identical target stimuli elicited a larger N1 and smaller P3b in the difficult task context. Moreover, when targets were incorrectly categorized, N1 amplitude was diminished and a P3b was not elicited. These findings provide evidence that the N1 component reflects a sensory discrimination process that is modulated by executive control, and that this component can index discrimination errors when stimulus discrimination is difficult.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Young Adult