Ongoing brain activity has been observed since the earliest neurophysiological recordings and is found over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. It is characterized by remarkably large spontaneous modulations. Here, we review evidence for the functional role of these ongoing activity fluctuations and argue that they constitute an essential property of the neural architecture underlying cognition. The role of spontaneous activity fluctuations is probably best understood when considering both their spatiotemporal structure and their functional impact on cognition. We first briefly argue against a "segregationist" view on ongoing activity, both in time and space, which would selectively associate certain frequency bands or levels of spatial organization with specific functional roles. Instead, we emphasize the functional importance of the full range, from differentiation to integration, of intrinsic activity within a hierarchical spatiotemporal structure. We then highlight the flexibility and context-sensitivity of intrinsic functional connectivity that suggest its involvement in functionally relevant information processing. This role in information processing is pursued by reviewing how ongoing brain activity interacts with afferent and efferent information exchange of the brain with its environment. We focus on the relationship between the variability of ongoing and evoked brain activity, and review recent reports that tie ongoing brain activity fluctuations to variability in human perception and behavior. Finally, these observations are discussed within the framework of the free-energy principle which - applied to human brain function - provides a theoretical account for a non-random, coordinated interaction of ongoing and evoked activity in perception and behavior.
Keywords: fMRI; fluctuations; intrinsic functional connectivity; ongoing activity; prestimulus activity; resting state functional connectivity; spontaneous activity; variability.