Loss of reliable temporal structure in event-related averaging of naturalistic stimuli
To separate neural signals from noise, brain responses measured in neuroimaging are routinely averaged across space and time. However, such procedures may obscure some properties of neural activity. Recently, multi-voxel pattern analysis methods have demonstrated that patterns of activity across voxels contain valuable information that is concealed by spatial averaging. Here we show that temporal patterns of neural activity contain information that can discriminate different stimuli, even within brain regions that show no net activation to that stimulus class. Furthermore, we find that in many brain regions, responses to natural stimuli are highly context dependent. In such cases, prototypical event-related responses do not even exist for individual stimuli, so that averaging responses to the same stimulus within different contexts may worsen the effective signal-to-noise. As a result, analysis of the temporal structures of single events can reveal aspects of neural dynamics which cannot be detected using standard event-related averaging methods.