The neurocognitive underpinnings of the Simon effect: An integrative review of current research

Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2020 Dec;20(6):1133-1172. doi: 10.3758/s13415-020-00836-y. Epub 2020 Oct 7.


For as long as half a century the Simon task - in which participants respond to a nonspatial stimulus feature while ignoring its position - has represented a very popular tool to study a variety of cognitive functions, such as attention, cognitive control, and response preparation processes. In particular, the task generates two theoretically interesting effects: the Simon effect proper and the sequential modulations of this effect. In the present study, we review the main theoretical explanations of both kinds of effects and the available neuroscientific studies that investigated the neural underpinnings of the cognitive processes underlying the Simon effect proper and its sequential modulation using electroencephalogram (EEG) and event-related brain potentials (ERP), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Then, we relate the neurophysiological findings to the main theoretical accounts and evaluate their validity and empirical plausibility, including general implications related to processing interference and cognitive control. Overall, neurophysiological research supports claims that stimulus location triggers the creation of a spatial code, which activates a spatially compatible response that, in incompatible conditions, interferes with the response based on the task instructions. Integration of stimulus-response features plays a major role in the occurrence of the Simon effect (which is manifested in the selection of the response) and its modulation by sequential congruency effects. Additional neural mechanisms are involved in supporting the correct and inhibiting the incorrect response.

Keywords: Electroencephalogram; Event-related potentials; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Sequential congruency effects; Simon task; Transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Brain*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Reaction Time
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation