Time scales in cognitive neuroscience.
"Frontiers in Physiology", v. 4
Cognitive neuroscience boils down to describing the ways in which cognitive function results from brain activity. In turn, brain activity shows complex fluctuations, with structure at many spatio-temporal scales. Exactly how cognitive function inherits the physical dimensions of neural activity, though, is highly non-trivial, and so are generally the corresponding dimensions of cognitive phenomena. As for any physical phenomenon, when studying cognitive function, the first conceptual step should be that of establishing its dimensions. Here, we provide a systematic presentation of the temporal aspects of task-related brain activity, from the smallest scale of the brain imaging technique's resolution, to the observation time of a given experiment, through the characteristic time scales of the process under study. We first review some standard assumptions on the temporal scales of cognitive function. In spite of their general use, these assumptions hold true to a high degree of approximation for many cognitive (viz. fast perceptual) processes, but have their limitations for other ones (e.g., thinking or reasoning). We define in a rigorous way the temporal quantifiers of cognition at all scales, and illustrate how they qualitatively vary as a function of the properties of the cognitive process under study. We propose that each phenomenon should be approached with its own set of theoretical, methodological and analytical tools. In particular, we show that when treating cognitive processes such as thinking or reasoning, complex properties of ongoing brain activity, which can be drastically simplified when considering fast (e.g., perceptual) processes, start playing a major role, and not only characterize the temporal properties of task-related brain activity, but also determine the conditions for proper observation of the phenomena. Finally, some implications on the design of experiments, data analyses, and the choice of recording parameters are discussed.