Cracking the code of oscillatory activity

PLoS Biol. 2011 May;9(5):e1001064. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001064. Epub 2011 May 17.


Neural oscillations are ubiquitous measurements of cognitive processes and dynamic routing and gating of information. The fundamental and so far unresolved problem for neuroscience remains to understand how oscillatory activity in the brain codes information for human cognition. In a biologically relevant cognitive task, we instructed six human observers to categorize facial expressions of emotion while we measured the observers' EEG. We combined state-of-the-art stimulus control with statistical information theory analysis to quantify how the three parameters of oscillations (i.e., power, phase, and frequency) code the visual information relevant for behavior in a cognitive task. We make three points: First, we demonstrate that phase codes considerably more information (2.4 times) relating to the cognitive task than power. Second, we show that the conjunction of power and phase coding reflects detailed visual features relevant for behavioral response--that is, features of facial expressions predicted by behavior. Third, we demonstrate, in analogy to communication technology, that oscillatory frequencies in the brain multiplex the coding of visual features, increasing coding capacity. Together, our findings about the fundamental coding properties of neural oscillations will redirect the research agenda in neuroscience by establishing the differential role of frequency, phase, and amplitude in coding behaviorally relevant information in the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Behavior
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Electroencephalography
  • Emotions
  • Facial Expression*
  • Humans
  • Visual Perception