Trial-by-Trial Variations in Subjective Attentional State are Reflected in Ongoing Prestimulus EEG Alpha Oscillations.
Macdonald JS., Mathan S., Yeung N.
Parieto-occipital electroencephalogram (EEG) alpha power and subjective reports of attentional state are both associated with visual attention and awareness, but little is currently known about the relationship between these two measures. Here, we bring together these two literatures to explore the relationship between alpha activity and participants' introspective judgments of attentional state as each varied from trial-to-trial during performance of a visual detection task. We collected participants' subjective ratings of perceptual decision confidence and attentional state on continuous scales on each trial of a rapid serial visual presentation detection task while recording EEG. We found that confidence and attentional state ratings were largely uncorrelated with each other, but both were strongly associated with task performance and post-stimulus decision-related EEG activity. Crucially, attentional state ratings were also negatively associated with prestimulus EEG alpha power. Attesting to the robustness of this association, we were able to classify attentional state ratings via prestimulus alpha power on a single-trial basis. Moreover, when we repeated these analyses after smoothing the time series of attentional state ratings and alpha power with increasingly large sliding windows, both the correlations and classification performance improved considerably, with the peaks occurring at a sliding window size of approximately 7 min worth of trials. Our results therefore suggest that slow fluctuations in attentional state in the order of minutes are reflected in spontaneous alpha power. Since these subjective attentional state ratings were associated with objective measures of both behavior and neural activity, we suggest that they provide a simple and effective estimate of task engagement that could prove useful in operational settings that require human operators to maintain a sustained focus of visual attention.