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Keywords:

  • task switching;
  • fMRI;
  • switch costs;
  • competition hypothesis;
  • task sets;
  • reconfiguration

Abstract

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we investigated processes involved in switching between two ongoing tasks, thought to be paradigmatic of executive control processes. Subjects were considerably slower and less accurate when switching between two tasks than when repeatedly carrying out one task, so-called “switch costs.” Switch costs, however, generally occur only when more than one task is associated with each stimulus type. This has led to the surmise that switch costs may be due largely to ongoing interference from previously learned stimulus-response (S-R) associations, which are no longer relevant for the task at hand. We used a paradigm that specifically assessed this hypothesis and investigated three stages. In Stage 1, a single task was carried out with each stimulus type; in Stage 2, a second novel task was introduced for each stimulus type; and in Stage 3, subjects reverted to carrying out solely the original tasks (as in Stage 1). In Stage 1, only one task was associated with each stimulus type, whereas two tasks were associated with each stimulus type in Stages 2 and 3. We compared images obtained during Stage 3 to those obtained during Stage 1 and show that during Stage 3, there was robust activation in the network of areas associated with the Stage 2 tasks, even though these tasks were no longer relevant. Our data strongly suggest that switch costs may derive largely from continued activation of areas associated with carrying out the now-irrelevant task(s). We posit that a large component of executive control processes involves resolution of competition between potentially relevant tasks. Our data also revealed widespread activation of a frontoparietal network of areas, and we discuss how this network might be involved in mediating this competition. Hum. Brain Mapping 21:279–297, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.