Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 February 2010
P3 is the most prominent of the electrical potentials of the human electroencephalogram that are sensitive to psychological variables. According to the most influential current hypothesis about its psychological significance [E. Donchin's], the “context updating” hypothesis, P3 reflects the updating of working memory. This hypothesis cannot account for relevant portions of the available evidence and it entails some basic contradictions. A more general formulation of this hypothesis is that P3 reflects the updating of expectancies. This version implies that P3-evoking stimuli are initially unexpected but later become expected. This contradiction cannot be resolved within this formulation. The alternative “context closure” hypothesis retains the concept of “strategic information processing” emphasized by the context updating hypothesis. P3s are evoked by events that are awaited when subjects deal with repetitive, highly structured tasks; P3s arise from subjects' combining successive stimuli into larger units. The tasks in which P3s are elicited can accordingly be classified in terms of their respective formal sequences of stimuli. P3 may be a physiological indicator of excess activation being released from perceptual control areas.