Alpha Activity Reflects the Magnitude of an Individual Bias in Human Perception

J Neurosci. 2020 Apr 22;40(17):3443-3454. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2359-19.2020. Epub 2020 Mar 16.


Biases in sensory perception can arise from both experimental manipulations and personal trait-like features. These idiosyncratic biases and their neural underpinnings are often overlooked in studies on the physiology underlying perception. A potential candidate mechanism reflecting such idiosyncratic biases could be spontaneous alpha band activity, a prominent brain rhythm known to influence perceptual reports in general. Using a temporal order judgment task, we here tested the hypothesis that alpha power reflects the overcoming of an idiosyncratic bias. Importantly, to understand the interplay between idiosyncratic biases and contextual (temporary) biases induced by experimental manipulations, we quantified this relation before and after temporal recalibration. Using EEG recordings in human participants (male and female), we find that prestimulus frontal alpha power correlates with the tendency to respond relative to an own idiosyncratic bias, with stronger α leading to responses matching the bias. In contrast, alpha power does not predict response correctness. These results also hold after temporal recalibration and are specific to the alpha band, suggesting that alpha band activity reflects, directly or indirectly, processes that help to overcome an individual's momentary bias in perception. We propose that combined with established roles of parietal α in the encoding of sensory information frontal α reflects complementary mechanisms influencing perceptual decisions.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The brain is a biased organ, frequently generating systematically distorted percepts of the world, leading each of us to evolve in our own subjective reality. However, such biases are often overlooked or considered noise when studying the neural mechanisms underlying perception. We show that spontaneous alpha band activity predicts the degree of biasedness of human choices in a time perception task, suggesting that alpha activity indexes processes needed to overcome an individual's idiosyncratic bias. This result provides a window onto the neural underpinnings of subjective perception, and offers the possibility to quantify or manipulate such priors in future studies.

Keywords: alpha oscillations; audiovisual perception; electrophysiology (EEG); idiosyncratic bias; interindividual variability; time perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Time Perception / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult