Although event-related potentials (ERPs) are widely used to study sensory, perceptual and cognitive processes, it remains unknown whether they are phase-locked signals superimposed upon the ongoing electroencephalogram (EEG) or result from phase-alignment of the EEG. Previous attempts to discriminate between these hypotheses have been unsuccessful but here a new test is presented based on the prediction that ERPs generated by phase-alignment will be associated with event-related changes in frequency whereas evoked-ERPs will not.
Using empirical mode decomposition (EMD), which allows measurement of narrow-band changes in the EEG without predefining frequency bands, evidence was found for transient frequency slowing in recognition memory ERPs but not in simulated data derived from the evoked model. Furthermore, the timing of phase-alignment was frequency dependent with the earliest alignment occurring at high frequencies. Based on these findings, the Firefly model was developed, which proposes that both evoked and induced power changes derive from frequency-dependent phase-alignment of the ongoing EEG. Simulated data derived from the Firefly model provided a close match with empirical data and the model was able to account for i) the shape and timing of ERPs at different scalp sites, ii) the event-related desynchronization in alpha and synchronization in theta, and iii) changes in the power density spectrum from the pre-stimulus baseline to the post-stimulus period. The Firefly Model, therefore, provides not only a unifying account of event-related changes in the EEG but also a possible mechanism for cross-frequency information processing.