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Revisiting the Automaticity of Reading: Electrophysiological Recordings Show That Stroop Words Capture Spatial Attention

Interference in the Stroop task is reduced when the word and color patch are placed at different locations and is diluted further by the presence of another distractor that is response-neutral. Such dilution indicates that reading is not independent of an observer's attentional focus and thus is not a fully automatic process. So where does reading fall on the automaticity continuum? To address this question, we sought to determine whether an irrelevant word that appears abruptly in the field of view invariably draws attention to its location or whether observers can successfully ignore it while identifying a centrally presented target. In two experiments, electrical brain activity was recorded while healthy young adults participated in nonintegrated Stroop tasks. Irrelevant color words appearing randomly to the left or right of a target shape elicited an event-related potential (ERP) component that reflects the spatial focusing of attention (posterior contralateral N2; N2pc). This N2pc was observed when participants discriminated the color of the target and when they discriminated the shape of the target. These findings demonstrate that color words reflexively capture spatial attention even when their meaning is unrelated to the task at hand. We conclude that although reading is not fully automatic, skilled readers cannot ignore words that appear abruptly in their field of view.
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