Whole-head magnetoencephalographic (MEG) and midline electroencephalographic (EEG) signals were simultaneously recorded from 6 subjects during drowsiness and sleep to define the topography and source distribution of K-complexes. In light sleep, K-complexes were also triggered by infrequent tones. Distributions of spontaneous and triggered magnetic K-complexes did not differ systematically, nor did those evoked by right- and left-ear stimuli, but there were large intra- and interindividual differences. Minimum-norm estimates and current dipoles were used to characterize the source currents. Current direction and distribution varied remarkably between the K-complexes appearing in similar situations. In one subject, most K-complexes were adequately modelled with two current dipoles which were situated in the left and right inferior parietal lobes. In other subjects, the current distributions were more complex, suggesting several brain regions to be active during one K-complex; the dominant foci were in frontal and parietal lobes. Our results suggest that the K-complex is not a stereotyped response of the cortex to internal or external stimuli, comparable to evoked responses, but a diffuse and variable cortical reaction during which large areas of cortex may be active.