Cognitive and brain consequences of conflict

Jin Fan, Jonathan I. Flombaum, Bruce D. McCandliss, Kathleen M. Thomas, Michael I. Posner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

556 Scopus citations


Tasks involving conflict between stimulus dimensions have been shown to activate dorsal anterior cingulate and prefrontal areas. It has been proposed that the dorsal anterior cingulate is involved a domain general process of monitoring conflict, while prefrontal areas are involved in resolving conflict. We examine three tasks that all require people to respond based on one stimulus dimension while ignoring another conflicting dimension, but which vary in the source of conflict. One of the tasks uses language stimuli (Stroop effect) and two use nonlanguage spatial conflicts appropriate for children and nonhuman animals. In Experiment 1, 12 participants were studied with event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while performing each of the three tasks. Reaction times for each of the three tasks were significantly longer in the incongruent condition compared with the congruent condition, demonstrating that each task elicits a conflict. By studying the same people in the same session, we test the hypothesis that conflict activates a similar brain network in the three tasks. Significant activations were found in the anterior cingulate and left prefrontal cortex for all three conflict tasks. Within these regions, the conflict component demonstrated evidence for significant common activation across the three tasks, although the peak activation point and spatial extent were not identical. Other areas demonstrated activation unique to each task. Experiments 2-4 provide behavioral evidence indicating considerable independence between conflict operations involved in the tasks. The behavioral and fMRI results taken together seem to argue against a single unified network for processing conflict, but instead support either distinct networks for each conflict task or a single network that monitors conflict with different sites used to resolve the conflict.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)42-57
Number of pages16
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2003

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by NSF Grant BCS 9907831 and by DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Research Fellowship in Psychiatry. The authors thank Drs. B. J. Casey, Michael Worden, Amir Raz, Yihong Yang, and Hong Pan for their help.


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