Abstract

Attention and working memory (WM) have classically been considered as two separate cognitive functions, but more recent theories have conceptualized them as operating on shared representations and being distinguished primarily by whether attention is directed internally (WM) or externally (attention, traditionally defined). Supporting this idea, a recent behavioral study documented a “WM Stroop effect,” showing that maintaining a color word in WM impacts perceptual color-naming performance to the same degree as presenting the color word externally in the classic Stroop task. Here, we employed ERPs to examine the neural processes underlying this WM Stroop task compared to those in the classic Stroop and in a WM-control task. Based on the assumption that holding a color word in WM would (pre-)activate the same color representation as by externally presenting that color word, we hypothesized that the neural cascade of conflict–control processes would occur more rapidly in the WM Stroop than in the classic Stroop task. Our behavioral results replicated equivalent interference behavioral effects for the WM and classic Stroop tasks. Importantly, however, the ERP signatures of conflict detection and resolution displayed substantially shorter latencies in the WM Stroop task. Moreover, delay-period conflict in the WM Stroop task, but not in the WM control task, impacted the ERP and performance measures for the WM probe stimuli. Together, these findings provide new insights into how the brain processes conflict between internal representations and external stimuli, and they support the view of shared representations between internally held WM content and attentional processing of external stimuli.

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