Although the performance of simple cognitive tasks can be enhanced if an incentive is provided, the mechanisms enabling such motivational control are not known. This study sought to uncover how mechanisms of attention and readiness are altered by reward-associated incentive stimuli. We measured EEG/ERP activity as human adults viewed a high- or low-incentive cue, experienced a short preparation interval, and then performed a simple visual search task to gain the predicted reward. Search performance was faster with high versus low incentives, and this was accompanied by distinct incentive-related EEG/ERP patterns at each phase of the task (incentive, preparation, and search). First, and most surprisingly, attention to high but not low incentive cues was actively suppressed, as indexed by a PD component in response to the incentive display. During the subsequent preparation interval, neural oscillations in the alpha frequency range were reduced after high-incentive cues, indicating heightened visual readiness. Finally, attentional orienting to the target in the search array was deployed with relatively little effort on high-incentive trials, as indexed by a reduced N2pc component. These results reveal the chain of events by which the brain's executive control mechanisms respond to incentives by altering the operation of multiple processing systems to produce optimal performance.

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