Even when our attention is dedicated to an important task, background processes monitor the environment for significant events. The mismatch negativity (MMN) event-related potential is thought to reflect such a monitoring process. Nevertheless, there is continuing debate concerning the susceptibility of the MMN to attentional manipulation. We investigated the trial-by-trial relationship between brain activity related to change detection, reflected in the MMN, and visual psychophysical performance—while varying task difficulty. We find that auditory change detection is indeed “automatic” in that MMN remains robust despite increasing (visual) task load. However, the MMN amplitude and latency are susceptible to both visual load and to momentary attentional fluctuations as reflected in success or failure to identify a following visual target. We conclude that background central auditory processing is sensitive to the demands of a visual task, and fluctuates based on moment-to-moment allocation of attentional resources to the visual task.

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