Abstract

Cognitive conflicts and distractions by task-irrelevant information often counteract effective and goal-directed behaviors. In some cases, conflicting information can even emerge implicitly, without an overt distractor, by the automatic activation of mental representations. For instance, during number processing, magnitude information automatically elicits spatial associations resembling a mental number line. This spatial–numerical association of response codes (SNARC) effect can modulate cognitive-behavioral performance but is also highly flexible and context-dependent, which points toward a critical involvement of working memory functions. Transcranial direct current stimulation to the PFC, in turn, has been effective in modulating working memory-related cognitive performance. In a series of experiments, we here demonstrate that decreasing activity of the left PFC by cathodal transcranial direct current stimulation consistently and specifically eliminates implicit cognitive conflicts based on the SNARC effect, but explicit conflicts based on visuospatial distraction remain unaffected. This dissociation is polarity-specific and appears unrelated to functional magnitude processing as classified by regular numerical distance effects. These data demonstrate a causal involvement of the left PFC in implicit cognitive conflicts based on the automatic activation of spatial–numerical processing. Corroborating the critical interaction of brain stimulation and neurocognitive functions, our findings suggest that distraction from goal-directed behavior by automatic activation of implicit, task-irrelevant information can be blocked by the inhibition of prefrontal activity.

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