- Conflict awareness dissociates theta-band neural dynamics of the medial frontal and lateral frontal cortex during trial-by-trial cognitive control
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- Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG)
- Psychology Research Institute (PsyRes)
Recent findings have refuted the common assumption that executive control functions of the prefrontal cortex exclusively operate consciously, suggesting that many, if not all, cognitive processes could potentially operate unconsciously. However, although many cognitive functions can be launched unconsciously, several theoretical models of consciousness assume that there are crucial qualitative differences between conscious and unconscious processes. We hypothesized that the potential benefit of awareness in cognitive control mechanisms might become apparent when high control has to be maintained across time and requires the interaction between a set of distant frontal brain regions. To test this, we extracted oscillatory power dynamics from electroencephalographic data recorded while participants performed a task in which conflict awareness was manipulated by masking the conflict-inducing stimulus. We observed that instantaneous conflict as well as across trial conflict adaptation mechanisms were associated with medial frontal theta-band power modulations, irrespective of conflict awareness. However, and crucially, across-trial conflict adaptation processes reflected in increased theta-band power over dorsolateral frontal cortex were observed after fully conscious conflict only. This suggests that initial conflict detection and subsequent control adaptation by the medial frontal cortex are automatic and unconscious, whereas the routing of information from the medial frontal cortex to the lateral prefrontal cortex is a unique feature of conscious cognitive control.
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