Error-related brain activity and error awareness in an error classification paradigm

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Error-related brain activity has been linked to error detection enabling adaptive behavioral adjustments. However, it is still unclear which role error awareness plays in this process. Here, we show that the error-related negativity (Ne/ERN), an event-related potential reflecting early error monitoring, is dissociable from the degree of error awareness. Participants responded to a target while ignoring two different incongruent distractors. After responding, they indicated whether they had committed an error, and if so, whether they had responded to one or to the other distractor. This error classification paradigm allowed distinguishing partially aware errors, (i.e., errors that were noticed but misclassified) and fully aware errors (i.e., errors that were correctly classified). The Ne/ERN was larger for partially aware errors than for fully aware errors. Whereas this speaks against the idea that the Ne/ERN foreshadows the degree of error awareness, it confirms the prediction of a computational model, which relates the Ne/ERN to post-response conflict. This model predicts that stronger distractor processing – a prerequisite of error classification in our paradigm – leads to lower post-response conflict and thus a smaller Ne/ERN. This implies that the relationship between Ne/ERN and error awareness depends on how error awareness is related to response conflict in a specific task. Our results further indicate that the Ne/ERN but not the degree of error awareness determines adaptive performance adjustments. Taken together, we conclude that the Ne/ERN is dissociable from error awareness and foreshadows adaptive performance adjustments. Our results suggest that the relationship between the Ne/ERN and error awareness is correlative and mediated by response conflict.

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