Uncovering the neural signature of lapsing attention: electrophysiological signals predict errors up to 20 s before they occur

J Neurosci. 2009 Jul 1;29(26):8604-11. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5967-08.2009.


The extent to which changes in brain activity can foreshadow human error is uncertain yet has important theoretical and practical implications. The present study examined the temporal dynamics of electrocortical signals preceding a lapse of sustained attention. Twenty-one participants performed a continuous temporal expectancy task, which involved continuously monitoring a stream of regularly alternating patterned stimuli to detect a rarely occurring target stimulus whose duration was 40% longer. The stimulus stream flickered at a rate of 25 Hz to elicit a steady-state visual-evoked potential (SSVEP), which served as a continuous measure of basic visual processing. Increasing activity in the alpha band (8-14 Hz) was found beginning approximately 20 s before a missed target. This was followed by decreases in the amplitude of two event-related components over a short pretarget time frame: the frontal P3 (3-4 s) and contingent-negative variation (during the target interval). In contrast, SSVEP amplitude before hits and misses was closely matched, suggesting that the efficacy of ongoing basic visual processing was unaffected. Our results show that the specific neural signatures of attentional lapses are registered in the EEG up to 20 s before an error.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Contingent Negative Variation / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology*
  • Female
  • Flicker Fusion / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psychophysics
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Signal Detection, Psychological
  • Spectrum Analysis
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult