Trial-by-trial fluctuations in the event-related electroencephalogram reflect dynamic changes in the degree of surprise

J Neurosci. 2008 Nov 19;28(47):12539-45. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2925-08.2008.


The P300 component of the human event-related brain potential has often been linked to the processing of rare, surprising events. However, the formal computational processes underlying the generation of the P300 are not well known. Here, we formulate a simple model of trial-by-trial learning of stimulus probabilities based on Information Theory. Specifically, we modeled the surprise associated with the occurrence of a visual stimulus to provide a formal quantification of the "subjective probability" associated with an event. Subjects performed a choice reaction time task, while we recorded their brain responses using electroencephalography (EEG). In each of 12 blocks, the probabilities of stimulus occurrence were changed, thereby creating sequences of trials with low, medium, and high predictability. Trial-by-trial variations in the P300 component were best explained by a model of stimulus-bound surprise. This model accounted for the data better than a categorical model that parametrically encoded the stimulus identity, or an alternative model of surprise based on the Kullback-Leibler divergence. The present data demonstrate that trial-by-trial changes in P300 can be explained by predictions made by an ideal observer keeping track of the probabilities of possible events. This provides evidence for theories proposing a direct link between the P300 component and the processing of surprising events. Furthermore, this study demonstrates how model-based analyses can be used to explain significant proportions of the trial-by-trial changes in human event-related EEG responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Event-Related Potentials, P300 / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Information Theory*
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nonlinear Dynamics*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Probability Learning
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult