A neural mechanism of cognitive control for resolving conflict between abstract task rules

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Conflict between multiple sensory stimuli or potential motor responses is thought to be resolved via bias signals from prefrontal cortex (PFC). However, population codes in the PFC also represent abstract information, such as task rules. How is conflict between active abstract representations resolved? We used functional neuroimaging to investigate the mechanism responsible for resolving conflict between abstract representations of task rules. Participants performed two different tasks based on a cue. We manipulated the degree of conflict at the task-rule level by training participants to associate the color and shape dimensions of the cue with either the same task rule (congruent cues) or different ones (incongruent cues). Phonological and semantic tasks were used in which performance depended on learned, abstract representations of information, rather than sensory features of the target stimulus or on any habituated stimulus-response associations. In addition, these tasks activate distinct regions that allowed us to measure magnitude of conflict between tasks. We found that incongruent cues were associated with increased activity in several cognitive control areas, including the inferior frontal gyrus, inferior parietal lobule, insula, and subcortical regions. Conflict between abstract representations appears to be resolved by rule-specific activity in the inferior frontal gyrus that is correlated with enhanced activity related to the relevant information. Furthermore, multi-voxel pattern analysis of the activity in the inferior frontal gyrus was shown to carry information about both the currently relevant rule (semantic/phonological) and the currently relevant cue context (color/shape). Similar to models of attentional selection of conflicting sensory or motor representations, the current findings indicate part of the frontal cortex provides a bias signal, representing task rules, that enhances task-relevant information. However, the frontal cortex can also be the target of these bias signals in order to enhance abstract representations that are independent of particular stimuli or motor responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13-24
Number of pages12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016



  • Cognitive control
  • fMRI
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Right inferior frontal gyrus
  • Task rule

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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