Eventrelated potentials ERPs

The electroencephalogram (EEG) is based on recordings of electrical brain activity measured at the surface of the scalp. Very small changes in electrical activity within the brain are picked up by scalp electrodes. These changes can be shown on the screen of a cathode-ray tube by means of an oscilloscope. A key problem with the EEG is that there tends to be so much spontaneous or background brain activity that it obscures the impact of stimulus processing on the EEG recording.

A solution to this problem is to present the same stimulus several times. After that, the segment of EEG following each stimulus is extracted and lined up with respect to the time of stimulus onset. These EEG segments are then simply averaged together to produce a single waveform. This method produces event-related potentials (ERPs) from EEG recordings, and allows us to distinguish genuine effects of stimulation from background brain activity.

ERPs are particularly useful for assessing the timing of certain cognitive processes. For example, some attention theorists have argued that attended and unattended stimuli are processed differently at an early stage of processing, whereas others have claimed that they are both analysed fully in a similar way (see

Chapter 5). Studies using ERPs have provided good evidence in favour of the former position. For example, Woldorff et al. (1993) found that ERPs were greater to attended than unattended auditory stimuli about 2050 milliseconds after stimulus onset.


ERPs provide more detailed information about the time course of brain activity than do most other techniques, and they have many medical applications (e.g., diagnosis of multiple sclerosis). However, ERPs do not indicate with any precision which regions of the brain are most involved in processing. This is due in part to the fact that the presence of skull and brain tissue distorts the electrical fields emerging from the brain. Furthermore, ERPs are mainly of value when the stimuli are simple and the task involves basic processes (e.g., target detection) occurring at a certain time after stimulus onset. As a result of these constraints (and the necessity of presenting the same stimulus several times) it would not be feasible to study most complex forms of cognition (e.g., problem solving; reasoning) with the use of ERPs.

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