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Keywords:

  • cognition;
  • ERP;
  • event-related potentials;
  • executive control;
  • humans;
  • task switching;
  • VEP

Abstract

For successful negotiation of our environment, humans must be readily able to switch from one task to another. This ability relies on ‘executive control’ processes and despite extensive efforts to detail the nature of these processes, there is little consensus as to how the brain achieves this critical function. Behavioural studies show that as subjects are given more time to prepare to switch task, performance improves; yet even with the longest preparation intervals, there remains an ineradicable performance cost on switch trials. As such, some elements of the switching process must wait until the stimulus to be acted upon has actually been presented. Here, using the methods of high-density mapping of brain potentials, we show that early visual processes are substantially different on switch trials than on later trials. Our data show that while there is clearly a degree of preparatory processing that occurs prior to a predictable switch of task, some elements of switching are only achieved after the switch stimulus has been presented. Our findings are discussed in the context of a new model of executive control processes that suggests that preparing to switch task may not be a separate (control) process per se, but rather, the beginning of a competition between the potentially relevant tasks, a competition that is ultimately resolved during the switch trial.