We investigated the dependence of visual word processes on attention by examining event-related potential (ERP) responses as subjects viewed words while their attention was engaged by a concurrent highly demanding task. We used a paradigm from a previous functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment [Rees, G., Russel, C., Frith, C. D., & Driver, J. Inattentional blindness vs. inattentional amnesia for fixated but ignored words. Science, 286, 2504–2506, 1999] in which participants attended either to drawings or to overlapping letters (words or nonwords) presented at a fast rate. Although previous fMRI results supported the notion that word processing was obliterated by attention withdrawal, the current electrophysiological results demonstrated that visual words are processed even under conditions in which attentional resources are engaged in a different task that does not involve reading. In two experiments, ERPs for attended words versus nonwords differed in the left frontal, left posterior, and medial scalp locations. However, in contrast to the previous fMRI results, ERPs responded differentially to ignored words and consonant strings in several regions. These results suggest that fMRI and ERPs may have differential sensitivity to some forms of neural activation. Moreover, they provide evidence to restore the notion that the brain analyzes words even when attention is tied to another dimension.

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