Traditionally, neuroscience and psychology have studied the human brain during periods of “online” attention to the environment, while participants actively engage in processing sensory stimuli. However, emerging evidence shows that the waking brain also intermittently enters an “offline” state, during which sensory processing is inhibited and our attention shifts inward. In fact, humans may spend up to half of their waking hours offline [Wamsley, E. J., & Summer, T. Spontaneous entry into an “offline” state during wakefulness: A mechanism of memory consolidation? Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 32, 1714–1734, 2020; Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932, 2010]. The function of alternating between online and offline forms of wakefulness remains unknown. We hypothesized that rapidly switching between online and offline states enables the brain to alternate between the competing demands of encoding new information and consolidating already-encoded information. A total of 46 participants (34 female) trained on a memory task just before a 30-min retention interval, during which they completed a simple attention task while undergoing simultaneous high-density EEG and pupillometry recording. We used a data-driven method to parse this retention interval into a sequence of discrete online and offline states, with a 5-sec temporal resolution. We found evidence for three distinct states, one of which was an offline state with features well-suited to support memory consolidation, including increased EEG slow oscillation power, reduced attention to the external environment, and increased pupil diameter (a proxy for increased norepinephrine). Participants who spent more time in this offline state following encoding showed improved memory at delayed test. These observations are consistent with the hypothesis that even brief, seconds-long entry into an offline state may support the early stages of memory consolidation.

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