The contributions of separate sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways to pupillary dilation during a sustained processing task were studied through environmental and pharmacological manipulations. In Experiment 1, 22 healthy volunteers (11 female) performed a serial Subtract 7 task while pupil diameter was recorded both during moderate room light and in darkness. In a control for verbalization, subjects performed an easier Add 1 task. In all conditions, pupil diameter increased significantly during the response period as compared to a pre-verbalization baseline period. Pupillary dilation was increased for the difficult task, and further increase in dilation was associated with recording in light. This suggests a major differential contribution to task difficulty mediated through inhibition of the parasympathetic pathway. In Experiment 2, a subgroup of 12 volunteers (seven female) repeated all conditions at three additional sessions in which one eye was instilled with tropicamide (to block the parasympathetic sphincter muscle), dapiprazole (to block the sympathetic dilator muscle) or placebo. All pharmacological conditions resulted in overall dilation during task performance. Differential performance similar to the placebo condition was seen only in the dapiprazole condition, when parasympathetic activation was intact. The findings suggest that sustained performance during a difficult task is modulated by cortical inhibition of the parasympathetic pathway at the oculomotor nucleus. Moreover, modulation of both ambient light intensity and pharmacological blockade of the final pupillary musculature were observed to provide converging approaches for quantifying the activity of identifiable central autonomic pathways.