The phase of ongoing EEG oscillations predicts visual perception.
Oscillations are ubiquitous in electrical recordings of brain activity. While the amplitude of ongoing oscillatory activity is known to correlate with various aspects of perception, the influence of oscillatory phase on perception remains unknown. In particular, since phase varies on a much faster timescale than the more sluggish amplitude fluctuations, phase effects could reveal the fine-grained neural mechanisms underlying perception. We presented brief flashes of light at the individual luminance threshold while EEG was recorded. Although the stimulus on each trial was identical, subjects detected approximately half of the flashes (hits) and entirely missed the other half (misses). Phase distributions across trials were compared between hits and misses. We found that shortly before stimulus onset, each of the two distributions exhibited significant phase concentration, but at different phase angles. This effect was strongest in the theta and alpha frequency bands. In this time-frequency range, oscillatory phase accounted for at least 16% of variability in detection performance and allowed the prediction of performance on the single-trial level. This finding indicates that the visual detection threshold fluctuates over time along with the phase of ongoing EEG activity. The results support the notion that ongoing oscillations shape our perception, possibly by providing a temporal reference frame for neural codes that rely on precise spike timing.