Empirical evidence indicates that detecting one's own mistakes can serve as a signal to improve task performance. However, little work has focused on how task constraints, such as the response-stimulus interval (RSI), influence post-error adjustments. In the present study, event-related potential (ERP) and behavioral measures were used to investigate the time course of error-related processing while humans performed a difficult visual discrimination task. We found that error commission resulted in a marked reduction in both task performance and sensory processing on the following trial when RSIs were short, but that such impairments were not detectable at longer RSIs. Critically, diminished sensory processing at short RSIs, indexed by the stimulus-evoked P1 component, was predicted by an ERP measure of error processing, the Pe component. A control analysis ruled out a general lapse in attention or mind wandering as being predictive of subsequent reductions in sensory processing; instead, the data suggest that error detection causes an attentional bottleneck, which can diminish sensory processing on subsequent trials that occur in short succession. The findings demonstrate that the neural system dedicated to monitoring and improving behavior can, paradoxically, at times be the source of performance failures.
The performance-monitoring system is a network of brain regions dedicated to monitoring behavior in order to adjust task performance when necessary. Previous research has demonstrated that activation of the performance monitoring system following incorrect decisions serves to improve future task performance. However, the present study provides evidence that when perceptual decisions must be made rapidly (within approximately half a second of each other), activation of the performance-monitoring system is predictive of impaired task-related attention on the subsequent trial. The data illustrate that the cognitive demands imposed by error processing can interfere with, rather than enhance, task-related attention when subsequent decisions need to be made quickly.
This research was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Grant Number FA9550-10-1-0385, the Center of Excellence in Neuroergonomics, Technology, and Cognition. The authors declare no competing financial interests.