Attentional selection and the processing of task-irrelevant information: Insights from fMRI examinations of the stroop task

Marie T. Banich, Michael P. Milham, Benjamin L. Jacobson, Andrew Webb, Tracey Wszalek, Neal J. Cohen, Arthur F. Kramer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


In this chapter, we discuss our research that reveals how attentional mechanisms can modulate activity of posterior brain regions responsible for processing the unattended attribute of a stimulus. To do so, we utilized fMRI to reveal patterns of regional brain activity for variants of the Stroop task that differ in the nature of the task-irrelevant stimulus attribute. In all variants, individuals had to identify the ink color in which an item was presented. To vary attentional demands, we manipulated whether or not the task-irrelevant information contained conflicting color information. The variants differed in whether the conflicting color information was contained in a word naming a color (e.g. the word 'red' in blue ink), a word naming an object highly associated with a specific color (e.g. the word 'frog' in red ink), or a line drawing of an object highly associated with a specific color (e.g. a drawing of a frog in red ink). When the unattended stimulus attribute contained color information that conflicted with an item's ink color, increased activity was observed in the posterior brain region that processes the aspect of the task-irrelevant attribute related to color. Increased activity was observed in the left precuneus and left superior parietal cortex when the conflicting information arose from a color word; in the middle temporal gyrus and insular cortex when the word named an object highly associated with a specific color, and included extensive regions of early portions of the ventral visual processing stream when a line drawing was highly associated with a specific color. These areas have been implicated in word processing, semantic processing, and visual processing, respectively. Our results suggest that attentional selection can occur by: (1) increasing the gain on all posterior regions responsible for processing information related to the task demands, regardless of whether that information is contained in the task-relevant or task-irrelevant dimension; (2) limiting the processing of task-irrelevant information in order to reduce interference; and (3) modulating the processing of representations varying from those of a low-level perceptual nature up through those of a higher-order semantic nature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)459-470
Number of pages12
JournalProgress in Brain Research
StatePublished - Jan 1 2001


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

Cite this