Making waves in the stream of consciousness: entraining oscillations in EEG alpha and fluctuations in visual awareness with rhythmic visual stimulation

J Cogn Neurosci. 2012 Dec;24(12):2321-33. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00288. Epub 2012 Aug 20.


Rhythmic events are common in our sensory world. Temporal regularities could be used to predict the timing of upcoming events, thus facilitating their processing. Indeed, cognitive theories have long posited the existence of internal oscillators whose timing can be entrained to ongoing periodic stimuli in the environment as a mechanism of temporal attention. Recently, recordings from primate brains have shown electrophysiological evidence for these hypothesized internal oscillations. We hypothesized that rhythmic visual stimuli can entrain ongoing neural oscillations in humans, locking the timing of the excitability cycles they represent and thus enhancing processing of subsequently predictable stimuli. Here we report evidence for entrainment of neural oscillations by predictable periodic stimuli in the alpha frequency band and show for the first time that the phase of existing brain oscillations cannot only be modified in response to rhythmic visual stimulation but that the resulting phase-locked fluctuations in excitability lead to concomitant fluctuations in visual awareness in humans. This entrainment effect was dependent on both the amount of spontaneous alpha power before the experiment and the level of 12-Hz oscillation before each trial and could not be explained by evoked activity. Rhythmic fluctuations in awareness elicited by entrainment of ongoing neural excitability cycles support a proposed role for alpha oscillations as a pulsed inhibition of cortical activity. Furthermore, these data provide evidence for the quantized nature of our conscious experience and reveal a powerful mechanism by which temporal attention as well as perceptual snapshots can be manipulated and controlled.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult