Sustaining attention for a prolonged period of time increases temporal variability in cortical responses

Leon C. Reteig, Ruud L. van den Brink, Sam Prinssen, Michael X. Cohen, Heleen A. Slagter*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Our ability to stay focused is limited: prolonged performance of a task typically results in mental fatigue and decrements in performance over time. This so-called vigilance decrement has been attributed to depletion of attentional resources, though other factors such as reductions in motivation likely also play a role. In this study, we examined three electroencephalography (EEG) markers of attentional control, to elucidate which stage of attentional processing is most affected by time-on-task and motivation. To elicit the vigilance decrement, participants performed a sustained attention task for 80 min without breaks. After 60 min, participants were motivated by an unexpected monetary incentive to increase performance in the final 20 min. We found that task performance and self-reported motivation declined rapidly, reaching stable levels well before the motivation manipulation was introduced. Thereafter, motivation increased back up to the initial level, and remained there for the final 20 min. While task performance also increased, it did not return to the initial level, and fell to the lowest level overall during the final 10 min. This pattern of performance changes was mirrored by the trial-to-trial consistency of the phase of theta (3–7 Hz) oscillations, an index of the variability in timing of the neural response to the stimulus. As task performance decreased, temporal variability increased, suggesting that attentional stability is crucial for sustained attention performance. The effects of attention on our two other EEG measures—early P1/N1 event-related potentials (ERPs) and pre-stimulus alpha (9–14 Hz) power—did not change with time-on-task or motivation. In sum, these findings show that the vigilance decrement is accompanied by a decline in only some facets of attentional control, which cannot be fully brought back online by increases in motivation. The vigilance decrement might thus not occur due to a single cause, but is likely multifactorial in origin.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-32
Number of pages17
Early online date1 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2019 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


  • EEG
  • Motivation
  • Sustained attention
  • Time-on-task
  • Vigilance


Dive into the research topics of 'Sustaining attention for a prolonged period of time increases temporal variability in cortical responses'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this