We employed a parametric version of the comparison Stroop paradigm to investigate the processing of numerical magnitude and physical size under task-relevant and -irrelevant conditions to investigate two theoretical issues: (1) What is the neural fate of task-irrelevant information? (2) What is the neural basis of the resolution of the conflict between task-relevant and -irrelevant information? We show in 18 healthy adults that numerical magnitudes of numbers call for higher processing requirements than physical sizes. The enhanced activation elicited by numerical magnitudes is not modulated by task relevance, indicating autonomous processing. Moreover, the normal behavioral distance effect when the numerical dimension is task relevant and reversed distance effect when it is not show that autonomous processing fully encodes numerical magnitudes. Conflict trials elicited greater activation in bilateral inferior frontal gyri, right middle frontal gyri, and right superior frontal gyri. We postulate two sources to the conflict, namely, at cognitive and response levels.

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