Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
There is growing evidence that processes formerly believed to be automatic are, in fact, strongly modulated by top–down influences. The purpose of the present work was to investigate how cognitive control can affect the purported automaticity of word processing by examining the impact of task switching on semantic processing using the ERP technique. In the context of the psychological refractory period dual-task paradigm, two experiments contrasted the context-sensitive N400 ERP elicited by the second of two target words under conditions that involved either a task switch or no-task switch. Although the N400 was not affected by SOA in the absence of switching, it was strongly attenuated at short SOAs when the psychological refractory period procedure involved a switch from a perceptual to a semantic task (Experiment 1) or a switch between two different semantic tasks (Experiment 2). These findings suggest that semantic processing cannot be performed in parallel with task switching and illustrate limitations in the ability of the cognitive system to adapt flexibly to the dynamically changing challenges of the environment according to task demands and behavioral goals.