Beyond task response—Pre-stimulus activity modulates contents of consciousness

Georg Northoff, Federico Zilio, Jianfeng Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


The current discussion on the neural correlates of the contents of consciousness (NCCc) focuses mainly on the post-stimulus period of task-related activity. This neglects the substantial impact of the spontaneous or ongoing activity of the brain as manifest in pre-stimulus activity. Does the interaction of pre- and post-stimulus activity shape the contents of consciousness? Addressing this gap in our knowledge, we review and converge two recent lines of findings, that is, pre-stimulus alpha power and pre- and post-stimulus alpha trial-to-trial variability (TTV). The data show that pre-stimulus alpha power modulates post-stimulus activity including specifically the subjective features of conscious contents like confidence and vividness. At the same time, alpha pre-stimulus variability shapes post-stimulus TTV reduction including the associated contents of consciousness. We propose that non-additive rather than merely additive interaction of the internal pre-stimulus activity with the external stimulus in the alpha band is key for contents to become conscious. This is mediated by mechanisms on different levels including neurophysiological, neurocomputational, neurodynamic, neuropsychological and neurophenomenal levels. Overall, considering the interplay of pre-stimulus intrinsic and post-stimulus extrinsic activity across wider timescales, not just evoked responses in the post-stimulus period, is critical for identifying neural correlates of consciousness. This is well in line with both processing and especially the Temporo-spatial theory of consciousness (TTC).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-37
Number of pages19
JournalPhysics of Life Reviews
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2024


  • Alpha band
  • Neural correlates of consciousness
  • Non-additive interaction
  • Pre-post-stimulus interaction
  • Temporo-spatial theory of consciousness
  • Trial-to-trial variability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Artificial Intelligence


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