In the zone or zoning out? Tracking behavioral and neural fluctuations during sustained attention

Cereb Cortex. 2013 Nov;23(11):2712-23. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs261. Epub 2012 Aug 31.


Despite growing recognition that attention fluctuates from moment-to-moment during sustained performance, prevailing analysis strategies involve averaging data across multiple trials or time points, treating these fluctuations as noise. Here, using alternative approaches, we clarify the relationship between ongoing brain activity and performance fluctuations during sustained attention. We introduce a novel task (the gradual onset continuous performance task), along with innovative analysis procedures that probe the relationships between reaction time (RT) variability, attention lapses, and intrinsic brain activity. Our results highlight 2 attentional states-a stable, less error-prone state ("in the zone"), characterized by higher default mode network (DMN) activity but during which subjects are at risk of erring if DMN activity rises beyond intermediate levels, and a more effortful mode of processing ("out of the zone"), that is less optimal for sustained performance and relies on activity in dorsal attention network (DAN) regions. These findings motivate a new view of DMN and DAN functioning capable of integrating seemingly disparate reports of their role in goal-directed behavior. Further, they hold potential to reconcile conflicting theories of sustained attention, and represent an important step forward in linking intrinsic brain activity to behavioral phenomena.

Keywords: continuous performance task; default mode network; dorsal attention network; fMRI; vigilance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time*
  • Young Adult