The neural circuitry that increases attention to goal-relevant stimuli when we are in danger of becoming distracted is a matter of active debate. To address several long-standing controversies, we asked participants to identify a letter presented either visually or auditorily while we varied the amount of cross-modal distraction from an irrelevant letter in the opposite modality. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed three novel results. First, activity in sensory cortices that processed the relevant letter increased as the irrelevant letter became more distracting, consistent with a selective increase of attention to the relevant letter. In line with this view, an across-subjects correlation indicated that the larger the increase of activity in sensory cortices that processed the relevant letter, the less behavioral interference there was from the irrelevant letter. Second, regions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) involved in orienting attention to the relevant letter also participated in increasing attention to the relevant letter when conflicting stimuli were present. Third, we observed a novel pattern of regional specialization within the cognitive division of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) for focusing attention on the relevant letter (dorsal ACC) versus detecting conflict from the irrelevant letter (rostral ACC). These findings indicate novel roles for sensory cortices, the DLPFC, and the ACC in increasing attention to goal-relevant stimulus representations when distracting stimuli conflict with behavioral objectives. Furthermore, they potentially resolve a long-standing controversy regarding the key contribution of the ACC to cognitive control.
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