Traveling Waves in the Cortex May Hold the Key to Understanding Human Cognition

Rachel Kogan ’19

Figure 1. A particular form of brain waves, known as traveling waves, may be the responsible for active memory, thought, and attention.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This age old phrase serves as the foundation for neuroscience, commenting not only on neuron synchronicity, but also proposing a biological scaffold for behavior and thought. The greater the number of oscillating electrical impulses, or brain waves, fired by a group of neurons, the stronger the signal and potential for action. In the past few years, a novel form of flowing brain wave or “traveling wave” has been identified. Unlike typically measured brain waves which localize to a specific region, traveling waves migrate across large areas of the brain.

According to a recent study performed by Joshua Jacobs and his team from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University, these traveling waves may be vital to human cognition. The researchers utilized electrocorticography (ECoG), or electrode sensing of cortical activity, to analyze participants’ brain activity during memory tasks. The acquired brain wave frequency, amplitude, location, direction, and velocity of movement in the various cortical regions were identified and analyzed using a multitude of mathematical arrays. These statistical analyses indicated that the brain wave signals occur in clusters and propagate in an identical manner each time a specific memory task is performed.

Although the traveling wave’s direction was not consistent between subjects, it was uniform within each individual during sensory stimulation and active recall. According to the researchers, these results indicate that traveling brain waves may be responsible for working memory and attention, two key components of human cognition. This novel understanding of brain wave functionality can also be applied to future diagnostic techniques for cognitive impairments and neurological disorders.



  1. J. Jacobs, et. al., Theta and Alpha Oscillations Are Traveling Waves in the Human Neocortex. Neuron 98, 1269-1281 (2018). doi:  
  2. Image retrieved from:

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